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Written by Cancer Center Staff

Source: Cancer Resource Room

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What should I say? What can I do to help?
These are common questions that people have when someone they care about has cancer. Each one of us has our own ways of coping with stressful situations. We each have our own personal histories, not only with illness, but with work, relationships, and life. Because of these differences, there is no simple answer. Here are some tips and ideas that may help.

What Is the Cancer Experience Like?
In order to best help your friend or loved one, it helps to understand what they are going through. Some cancer survivors describe cancer as a roller coaster ride. There are highs and lows. Sometimes you don't know what to expect or how you will feel, both physically and emotionally. Close family members like a spouse, partner, or adult child can experience the same roller coaster of thoughts and feelings. Being a caregiver of someone with cancer can also be exhausting. Daily routines can be disrupted because of the treatment schedule or treatment side-effects. Our daily routines give us a sense of control of our lives. When things are interrupted, we can feel like we are losing control. When coping with a cancer diagnosis, people often feel a loss of control in many areas of their lives.

How to Help
There are two main ways you can help a person and their family. One is by being present, by communicating with your words and actions, "I am here for you." Every person needs to feel cared for and comforted. Your presence can become a healing force in the life of a friend or family member. The other is by helping with day-to-day routine tasks.

Being Present

  • Listen, listen, listen. This sounds simple but may be hard to do. Just listening to a person say out loud how they are feeling can be the most help.
  • Try not to automatically offer reassuring words when someone expresses worry or fear.
  • If you want to encourage someone, remind them of their special qualities, like their sense of humor, or of other challenges they have successfully dealt with.
  • It's best not to offer advice. Advice often shuts down communication and suggests there is only one solution. Discussing choices that might be available helps the person talk through their decision.
  • Try not to compare the person's experience to others you have known with cancer. Remember each person's body reacts differently to cancer and treatment. And cancer care is always changing, so what was done even a few years ago may not make sense now.
  • Especially at work or in the community, respect a person's choice about how much they want to share. If someone confides in you, ask them how much they want others to know. Keep private conversations private.
  • At work, a smile, having lunch together, or just keeping things "normal" may be the best way to help a co-worker in treatment. Remember, people do get tired of being asked, "How are you."
  • Before you tell someone "you will be fine," think about if you are saying this to calm your own worries. The phrase "you will be fine" can cause a cancer patient to feel more dismissed than supported.
  • Comment on how brave or strong someone is only when that seems really appropriate. Otherwise it can make it hard for them to tell you when they don't feel that way.

Helping with routine tasks
Try not to ask a general question like, "How can I help." It's better to offer to help with a specific task. For example, offer to:

  • Pick up grocery items for them when you go to the store.
  • Walk the dog.
  • Take the children to their after school activities.
  • Go with them to an appointment.
  • Create a list of tasks and organize others who want to help
  • Offer to keep others informed if they are overwhelmed by phone calls.
  • Offer to stay with the children so a couple can have time alone.

Sometimes people aren't ready for help. It's difficult for some people to accept help, especially in the beginning. Don't be hurt if your help is refused; this may be how they cope. Let them know that you'll be checking back with them. They may also find comfort in keeping up their usual work or home schedule.

Family Communication
If you are a caregiver or other close family member, it's okay to talk about your feelings with your loved one who has cancer. Keeping communication going, no matter how difficult, can help you both cope better. If communication is just too hard, there are members of the treatment team who can help. Don't hesitate to contact them and talk about your concerns. Remember also that you deserve help during this difficult time. Think about letting others help so you can have more time to do things that you and your loved one enjoy.

What's New
To Search Pub Med, please see below.
Consumer and selected health professional journals

Support & Education Programs

We know that being diagnosed with cancer can be stressful for you and your family. We offer a variety of cancer support services to help patients and families gain the support and information they will need to meet the challenges ahead.

To find the upcoming education programs on "Parenting with Cancer," "Fathers Dealing with Cancer," and others, please see the HOPES calendar.

Look for the current offerings in the HOPES calendar.