“All of a sudden, they started acting weird around me.”
I often hear this statement from cancer patients regarding the reaction from friends and family after being diagnosed. Breast cancer, prostate cancer, or lung cancer – it makes no difference; they all seem to elicit a similar response.
Some other comments I’ve heard from patients:
- “I thought she’d be there for me. She couldn’t even look me in the eye!”
- “Just like that, my social circle diminished to just a handful of people.”
- “I know he’s just trying to help, but I wish he’d just listen instead of offering advice.”
And I get it. Having practised as a GP for the best part of three decades, I completely understand the myriad of reactions caused by shock, sadness and anger. It can seem like just yesterday you and your friend or relative were drinking pinot gris outside a café on a perfect spring afternoon in Paris.
Now, all you see when you look upon them is their frailty and the looming presence of death.
However, what’s called for is acceptance of the situation, deep empathy and a good dose of normality.
By no means extensive, here are some tips on how to be a mate while supporting a someone with cancer.
Tips for Supporting Someone With Cancer
1. BE THERE. SHOW UP.
Take them to their medical appointments on time and without fuss. Hang out with them while they undergo chemotherapy. Bring along a board game when you visit them in hospital. Stay a while.
Through actions, not words, let them know they can rely on you to be present. A thousand ‘hang in there, champ’ Facebook posts are meaningless compared to showing up and saying, “OK, what’ve we got on today?”
On the other hand, give them space if they need it. People with cancer can be very busy. Be understanding if your help isn’t required at times.
2. DON’T AVOID THE SUBJECT
The ‘elephant in a room’ is hard to ignore, and cancer is one huge beast. Don’t be afraid to talk with your friend or relative about their diagnosis if they want to.
The key here is to do more listening than talking. They’ll likely have countless thoughts swirling around their head that require a good airing.
Then again, they may want to say nothing at all. Be the ears they need, or be comfortable just sitting in silence.
Don’t be scared to inject a bit of humour, particularly if you have a close relationship. After all, laughter is the best medicine.
3. JUST BE NORMAL
Helping someone with cancer stick to a routine can do wonders for their spirit. Maintaining a sense of stability and normality can be comforting, especially when their life has been turned upside down.
Keep doing your regular activities together. Go camping during Easter. Continue jogging every Saturday if that’s your thing – exercise is encouraged for patients, even during chemo.
Of course, there will be times when life is far from normal. Be adaptable to when this happens. Get things back on track when the opportunity presents itself.
4. RALLY THE TROOPS
It’s nearly impossible to support a friend or relative with cancer by yourself. There can be so much to do, which combined with high emotions, can be all too much for one person.
With their permission, build a team of supporters to share duties. This may include close friends, family, colleagues and cancer support services.
If the patient is a friend, remember to get the blessing of their family before building a broader support network. You don’t want to step on anyone’s toes and create additional strain in an already stressful situation.
5. CANCER IS A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
Hang in there for the long haul when supporting someone with cancer. Your adrenaline may run high following their diagnosis, but can you maintain the commitment?
In many cases, cancer gets more challenging over time. Seemingly endless appointments, repeated chemo sessions and no promise of results can make it hard to persist with constant support.
But imagine how hard it is for your friend or relative who has the disease.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a break when you need it. ‘Powering through’ rarely works and usually leads to burnout.
This is where a team of supporters is golden in maintaining the care for someone in need.
What Not to Do
Here’s a short list of things to avoid following someone’s cancer diagnosis. All in all, it just requires common sense and thinking before you speak.
- Don’t avoid your them because you don’t know what to say
Trust me, no-one does. Just admit that you don’t know where to start and take it from there. Your honesty and openness will likely get the ball rolling in the right direction.
- Don’t visit them if you’re sick
Their body’s immune system is at its all-time low during and after chemo. A simple cold can be disastrous!
- Avoid comparisons
Spouting things like, “My cousin had stage four breast cancer back in ‘86 and beat it through positive thinking, and now she climbs mountains and hunts grizzly bears” isn’t helpful.
- Avoid offering medical advice
Don’t go there unless you’re an oncologist or doctor experienced in cancer. Your friend or relative needs love, support and evidence-based medicine. If you’ve read online that Venus flytraps cure cancer, maybe keep it to yourself.
- Refrain from any of the following statements
- “At least you’ve still got your hair.”
- “Ah, we could all get hit by a bus tomorrow.”
- “Have you tried cutting out sugar/fat/salt?”
- “You should have exercised more/stopped smoking/stressed less when I told you to.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
Your GP can also refer you to a specialist if you want an allergy test. Some people find allergy testing useful in determining the exact trigger of their hay fever.
Dr Judith Kirwood is a local GP at Doctors of South Melbourne.