When someone you love shares the news they have cancer, it’s a big shock. One of your first thoughts is, “what do I say?” or “how can I help?”
Just being supportive can have a positive effect on your loved one: Research shows that social support from family members and friends has a strong impact on the process of coping with cancer, and, can increase a patients’ overall wellbeing. Dr. Soffia Palsdottir, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center offers these tips:
What to Do
Listen. One of the best ways to show support is to really listen – without judgment, interrupting or minimizing your loved one’s feelings. Acknowledge and validate what they are going through.
Offer Help. Cancer patients often feel reluctant to ask for help for fear of being a burden on their family and friends. Offer your loved one specific ways you can help: “I am free on Wednesdays to drive you to your appointments or sit with you during chemotherapy.” “I can walk your dog.” “I can come over once a week to help with household tasks.”
What to Say
“I am here for you.” Cancer can be a lonely and isolating experience and sometimes people avoid the person with cancer because they don’t know how to show support or what to say. Reassure your loved one by ensuring them you will be there and will check in with them regularly.
“I am here if you need to talk.” Sometimes cancer patients don’t want to talk about their cancer or treatment. Letting them know you are there when they are ready to talk can help them feel comfortable to express themselves on their own terms.
“I’m sorry you are going through this.” Show empathy, concern and compassion.
“Can I tell you about the trip I just returned from?” Engaging your loved one in usual, non-cancer topics – giving them a break from difficult topics can provide a sense of balance and connection.
“I’m sad you’re going through this.” You don’t have to completely shield the cancer patient from your feelings. You may also consider talking to a professional counselor or therapist; doing so may make you even more available to support your loved one.
What Not to Say
People often worry about saying the “wrong” things to someone with cancer. Remember, each person with cancer is different, but here are some tips on what to avoid:
Minimizing their emotions. Instead of saying, “don’t worry, everything will turn out ok,” or “I know how you feel,” consider saying “good luck” or “I hope things go well for you.”
Saying “You are so strong” or “You are so positive.” Nobody can be strong and brave all the time. Rather, help them accept they’ll have good and bad days and reassure them you are there to support them.
Offering advice. Although well-intended, bombarding the cancer patient with information can be overwhelming and confusing. If you want to offer a suggestion, ask permission before sharing the advice.
Making comparisons. Each person’s experience with cancer is unique to them. Avoid comparing their situation to somebody else you know.
Cancer can be an isolating experience and losing connection with loved ones can add to the patient’s distress. It’s ok to admit you don’t know the appropriate thing to say or do; the most important thing is to stay connected.
Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center provides a wide variety of wellness classes and support programs. To learn more about these services visit: bannerhealth.com/banner-md-anderson/education/events