A diagnosis of cancer has an impact on the entire family. Emotional support from family and friends can make a significant difference to the experience of survivorship, but knowing when, how, and in what way to offer support can be a challenge to figure out.
You may feel awkward and unsure about what to say. The moods and needs of the survivor and primary caregivers may change from moment to moment, making it hard to know when to step in. You may be balancing respecting their privacy with letting them know you care and are available. While there is not a list of steadfast rules or one perfect way to support someone you care about, considering the following might help guide the way.
Simply be present and listen compassionately. Often families coping with cancer need relationships where they can share the complexity, the uncertainty, and even the mundane as they navigate a cancer diagnosis. Living with cancer can feel heavy. Sharing with people they trust can lighten the mental load and help someone feel less alone. And talking through worry often helps to find the way one step at a time. Resist cheerleading or quickly jumping to problem-solving to fix the distress. The power is in your presence.
Offer concrete suggestions for practical support. Asking for help is a vulnerable thing to do and hard for many people. Letting your loved ones know you can help them in very specific ways relieves them of the work of figuring out how you can help. Offering support like, “I have time to mow your lawn on Saturday, would that work and be helpful to you?” or “I can bring a pot of chicken soup and a salad over on Tuesday for your family to eat through the week, does that sound ok?” or “I am out running errands and have a small little treat for you. Will you be around if I drop it off at your door?”
Help maintain normalcy. Your loved one with cancer and the primary caregivers alongside them are so much more than a cancer diagnosis. Continuing to ask about other important parts of their life, engage with them in other interests, laugh and allow space for a range of emotions. Helping to hold on to meaningful pieces of their pre-cancer life helps survivors and their loved ones feel balanced, capable, and connected.
Be honest. If you are finding it hard to know what to do or say, be honest instead of silent. Non-verbal communication can be quite powerful and often easier to accept in fragile moments. A hand squeeze, a long hug, a note, or a simple check-in text all matter a great deal. Allow someone space to respond in their own way and at their own pace. Resist having expectations and if you are struggling with the reality of their diagnosis, find the support you need so you feel ready and capable when your loved one does reach out to you.
Julie Larson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker based in New York City and Des Moines, Iowa. Her therapeutic areas of focus include supporting clients who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, infertility, pregnancy loss, or grief. Julie will be joining us as the keynote speaker for the 2023 HOPE Summit, and registration is open now!