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How to support someone with cancer

When a friend or loved one has cancer you may wonder how best to help and support them. Here you can find out about the different ways.

What should I say?

At first you might feel unsure about what to say or do, being open and sensitive to how they are feeling is what most people need. Knowing you are there for them will really help.

Every person with cancer has a different experience so try not to assume how they might be feeling. They may feel happy one day and sad the next. Try to be mindful of their mood.

Remember that they might not want to talk or think about their cancer all of the time.  Having a normal conversation about everyday things and sharing a joke can sometimes be very welcome.

Try not to take it personally if they don’t want to talk about their cancer and respect their need for privacy or to have some quiet time.

The emotions they might feel

You might find that their mood changes from one moment to the next. This is a normal response to a diagnosis of cancer. There are a whole range of emotions that they might experience including:

  • anger
  • sadness
  • uncertainty
  • fear
  • guilt
  • frustration
  • loneliness
  • isolation
  • resentment
  • grief

Having an understanding of these emotions can help you to support them.

We have a section all about cancer and emotions, which you may want to look at.

Emotional support

Research has shown that emotional support from family and friends can make a big difference to the quality of life of someone with cancer.

People are often afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone with cancer. If you are open, honest and show your concern then you can be a great support. Here are some tips that might help you.

Do:

  • Say if you feel awkward – it acknowledges the situation rather than pretending it’s not happening.
  • Give them a friendly hand squeeze or hug – it can go a long way.
  • Ring them up, send a card, note or text to say you’re thinking of them.
  • Let them know that if they want to talk you’ll be there to listen - then make sure you are available.
  • Respect their need for privacy.
  • Offer support throughout the whole diagnosis - at the beginning, during and after treatment.
  • Share a joke or laugh with them if this seems appropriate.
  • Keep your relationship as normal and as balanced as possible.

Try not to:

  • Say you know how they feel – we can’t ever know exactly how someone with cancer feels.
  • Tell them to ‘be strong’ or ‘be positive’ – it puts pressure on them to behave a certain way.
  • Take things personally if they seem angry or upset or don’t want to talk.
  • Offer advice that they haven’t asked for.
  • Compare their situation to somebody else you know, each person’s experience with cancer is unique.

Being a good listener

A good listener tries to be aware of someone’s thoughts and feelings as much as they can. You don’t need to have all the answers. Just listening to a person’s concerns or worries can be hugely helpful.

A good listener tries to really tune in and listen to a person in the moment. Listening is an important part of providing emotional support. 

Here are some tips on how to listen well.

  • Try to keep the setting private, relaxed and with few distractions.
  • Maintain eye contact but don’t stare.
  • Let the person with cancer lead the conversation and try not to interrupt.
  • Give your full attention to what they are saying.
  • If you’re finding it difficult or upsetting don’t change the subject – say how you feel, this can prevent any awkwardness.
  • If they cry, don’t try to cheer them up. Reassure them that it’s OK to be sad and that it’s a normal response to what’s happening to them.
  • A friendly touch of the hand can help but if they pull away give them space.
  • Try not to give advice unless they have asked for it.
  • Don’t use humour unless they have used it themselves.
  • Silences are OK, don’t feel like you have to fill them with words.

Practical support

As well as supporting someone emotionally it can help to offer practical support too.

Check in with your friend or loved one and ask if there is anything specific that they need help with.

Some people don’t want help or they may find it hard to accept it. They might want to remain as independent as possible. Try not to take this personally. Respect their decision but let them know that if they change their mind you are there.

You could offer to help again in the future, or set up a rota so that you and friends can take it in turns to help out. Make sure that you are able to commit to any offers of help that you do make.

Here are some practical ideas:

  • make some meals that they can put in the freezer
  • offer to do some gardening
  • drive them to the hospital for blood tests and appointments
  • help with the cleaning or laundry
  • take any pets for a walk or to the vet
  • offer to do the shopping
  • return or pick up library books
  • offer to take the children to and from school
  • bring them lunch and stay for a chat
  • run any errands that they might need doing
  • ask before you visit, in case they are feeling too unwell
Last reviewed: 
10 Jan 2018
  • Self-management support from the perspective of patients with a chronic condition: a thematic synthesis of qualitative studies

    J. Dwarswaard and others.

    Health Expectations. Vol 19, Issue 2. April 2016.

  • The effect of individualized patient education, along with emotional support, on the quality of life of breast cancer patients - A pilot study

    S.Sajjad and others. 

    European Journal of Oncology Nursing. Vol 21, April 2016, p75-82. 

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