How to Help Someone with Cancer

When someone you care about is coping with a difficult diagnosis, grieving the loss of a loved one, or undergoing a significant transition, it can be difficult to know how to help. Here’s some advice on how to best support someone or a family in the wake of cancer diagnosis or treatment.  

Follow their lead 

Everyone is different, so it’s always best to follow the lead of the person impacted. Whether it’s a short conversation or an open door, be there to provide gentle, consistent support.  

It is important not to project your feelings onto a family, even if you have been through something similar. Instead, respect where they are in the process. One way to open a conversation is, “I am thinking of you and want to support you in whatever way you need.” 

Do not make empty offers 

The demands of caring for a sick family member can be overwhelming and time-consuming. Vague messages of support, however well-intentioned, can sometimes compound feelings of isolation and helplessness. Instead of “Call me if you need help,” it would be more helpful to hear, “I’m off Wednesday. Let me come over.”  

When someone’s world flips upside down, many people struggle to ask for help. So, when friends and family just show up with meals, restaurant gift cards or care packages with food that will last, it can really make a difference. That said, when fulfilling a promise to help is not realistic, even simple messages can be special and go a long way. 

Be specific 

Upholding routines during a challenging time is important. One way to support someone or a family is to help carry out the specific tasks of their ordinary routines. Ask if you can help with providing childcare, giving rides to and from school, delivering food, picking up mail, feeding pets or watering plants. 

To be mindful of a family’s emotional state, it may even help to offer straightforward instructions for innocuous gestures, like sympathy cards, for example. You can say to the family, “Please know you can open these if you want, but you do not have to.” 

Additionally, an ordinary question like “How are you?” may suddenly feel daunting to someone struggling. Instead, “How are you doing today?” can be easier to answer. 

Try not to rely on clichés 

Some positive messages – such as “You’re strong” or “You will get through this” – can not only sound clichéd to someone going through cancer treatment but also may also feel dismissive of the gravity of a situation.  

Rather than trying to offer comforting or encouraging words, just listen without offering advice. Listening creates a sense of safety in a scary time helps. 

Offer to be the messenger  

When a family is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, whoever is sick becomes the priority. As time goes by, it can be easy to become disconnected from the outside world. Communication with friends and family can pile up and become overwhelming. When they do communicate with you, whether via text or blog, it can be helpful to the family to ensure other friends receive any updates as well. 

Do take up a cause 

Coping with a cancer diagnosis often means that a family’s resources are stretched thin during treatment. Communities and groups across the country are dedicated to helping families during challenging times. Whether it’s donating, fundraising or volunteering, there are plenty of ways to help. One person can make all the difference. 

Learn about Lurie Children’s Families & Friends Program 

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