Written by Rachel O'Donnell
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Torie Croog
The physical, emotional, and mental impact of learning a loved one has cancer creates a tough road to navigate for patients and their family members. The proverbial elephant in the room can make it confusing and awkward to have even a simple conversation.
Luckily, there are certain things family or friends can do to help ease the tension and create a more comfortable environment for their loved one. Here’s what you can do to make their life a little easier during a dark and scary time.
1. Let them lead the conversation.
If your loved one wants to speak about their illness, let them; if not, let it be. Sometimes, they may feel like getting something off their chest; other times, they may want to keep to themselves. It all depends on what the person is feeling.
For example, when my mother was sick, she rarely brought up her illness, and I respected that. I always honored her wishes and never forced an unwanted conversation. I would speak to my dad about her treatment and state of health, as she had enough on her plate already.
2. Don’t ask them too many questions.
Similar to my first point, someone who is in pain and unsure of their own future may not want to be constantly asked specific medical questions, nor be forced to continuously answer the go-to “how are you feeling?” Odds are they’re not feeling too great, and this might be triggering to some.
Obviously, if you are a close family member, friend, or caretaker, you need to discuss their options for treatment. However, you do not need to be asking for a constant update of their progress or feelings. Trust that if there’s a new development, they will let you know.
3. Try to make their life as normal as it can be, given the circumstances.
A cancer diagnosis turns one’s life upside down. Your loved one is probably feeling scared, anxious, and unsure about their future. Sticking to some sort of routine that gives them a sense of normalcy is often the best route.
If they’re up to seeing visitors, and you normally call them at 7 p.m. every Thursday, keep doing that! Speak about everyday life, family, friends, hobbies, etc. A recently diagnosed person with cancer is often trying to assess their emotions, and sticking to what they are familiar with may help calm their anxiety.
4. Don’t underestimate the power of a homemade meal or a good house clean.
To make life a little easier for your loved one, offer up your cooking skills and make them a few meals—preferably something that will freeze nicely, like a casserole or a baked pasta meal. Here are a few examples of tasty meals that freeze well.
If you’re not much of a cook, offer to clean or tidy up their home. Maybe you could come over once a week to do the laundry, vacuum their house, or take care of their pets. Little gestures speak volumes during a difficult time.
5. Offer up resources, such as a therapist or support group.
Speaking to a trained professional, or others who are going through a similar experience is helpful for some. There are plenty of online options, too, for those who are social distancing.
If relevant, offer these resources not just to the person who has cancer, but also to their family or friends. When my mom was diagnosed, I was filled with pent-up anger and sadness and would have likely benefited from therapy or a support group. A few resources to start with are the National Cancer Institute (NIH), Cancer Care, the Cancer Support Community, and finally, OneVillage, of course!
6. Give them space.
Your loved one is going through a lot and may just want to be alone. Sometimes, the best thing to do for a patient with a new cancer diagnosis is to give them time to process the situation.
Everyone reacts differently, and if they are giving signs they need space, don’t bombard them with visits or calls. They know you care. They may just need some time to themselves.
7. But also, be there for them!
Giving someone space while also being there for them might seem contradictory, but it’s not. It’s all about paying attention and adapting accordingly.
We all live busy lives, but when someone close to you is dealing with a new cancer diagnosis, it’s important to make time for them. Whether it be time for a visit, phone call or if they need a ride to a doctor’s visit, be there for them.
Cancer not only affects the body, but the mind as well. Along with the patient, family and friends need to take care of themselves, too. It is completely normal to feel a wide range of emotions. Everyone processes emotions differently, and it’s okay to be hurt, angry, resentful, or to feel however you need to feel in the moment. The most important thing to do is to be there for your loved one and show them they are loved.