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Supporting a loved one with cancer

Sooner or later someone you care about will learn he or she has cancer. When that happens, will you know how to offer comfort, reassurance, support and, most important, hope? These guidelines will help you overcome awkward moments or uncomfortable feelings, enabling you to stand by your loved one when he or she needs you most.

  • Keep the lines of communication open. Some people want to talk about their cancer; others prefer not to. Take the lead from your friend or family member and make it clear that you’re always willing to listen. Be straightforward and honest, and don’t offer advice unless it’s requested.
  • Remember the power of a hug, a smile or a pat on the hand. When words fail you, gestures can communicate love and encouragement.
  • Be aware of the different stages your loved one may go through. Shock, anger, fear, guilt and indecision are some of the feelings prompted by a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes people with the disease turn their anger on those closest to them. If you’re the target of a hostile outburst, try to understand that the attack is not personal.
  • Don’t overindulge or overprotect a person with cancer. While it’s fine to assist with meals, errands or paperwork when your loved one is not feeling well or is recovering from therapy, don’t promote overdependence. As long as he or she is physically able, a person with cancer should try to continue as many activities as possible, including working, parenting and other responsibilities.
  • Try to follow your regular routine. If you used to go to the movies together on Friday nights, continue to do so. If you took a ride together every Sunday afternoon, keep it up.
  • Be specific. Ask “What are you feeling?” instead of “How are you?” When it’s obvious that help is needed, make concrete offers: “Let me pick up some groceries for you. Where’s your shopping list?”
  • Be yourself. Cancer does not suddenly transform a friend or a family member into a stranger. Relax, and treat him or her as you always have.
  • Discuss the future. Although each person and situation is unique, four out of 10 people treated for cancer are alive five years after diagnosis. So it’s reasonable to assume that many plans can still be realized. On the other hand, don’t be falsely optimistic or ignore that death may be imminent.