When a friend or family member has been diagnosed with cancer it’s only natural that you want to do something to help out. But what exactly is helpful, and what are the things that you should be aware of before reaching out?
“How you help, and what you say to a person with cancer will depend on your relationship with them,” says Cancer Council SA Chief Executive Lincoln Size.
“Be sensitive and compassionate,” Lincoln says. “Even if you’ve had cancer yourself, what your friend is going through may be completely different to your experience.”
People with cancer experience a range of emotions and physical side effects, so before you reach out, prepare yourself for possible changes to your friend’s personality and appearance.
“Where your friend may once have been happy and excited, a cancer diagnosis may (understandably) make them feel sad, angry or depressed. Also, the physical changes that come with cancer, and cancer treatment, such as nausea, vomiting, skin sensitivity, fatigue, infections and hair loss, will affect how the person is feeling on any given day.”
Be there for them: We all know it can be hard to find the right words, or to see our loved ones in pain or distress, but simply connecting with someone can be comforting. If you don’t know what to say, then tell them that. Often people are just as happy to have someone there to listen to them if they feel like talking. Even a phone call is comforting – particularly if the person is keeping their physical distance for fear of infection.
Offer practical support: What are the things your friend is struggling with since receiving their diagnosis? Could you help by going grocery shopping for them, helping with the cleaning or the laundry, doing some gardening, minding their children or pets, or making them dinner? Some people may be too proud to ask for help, but if you give them a specific offer, such as “Can I bring you dinner next Friday night?” they may be more likely to accept it.
Follow their lead: Some people may not want to hear themselves described as a cancer battler or survivor. Follow their lead and use positive language that mirrors their own. Likewise, if your friend wants to talk about things other than the cancer, then do that. They may be looking for a distraction.
Keep the invites coming: Even if you think your friend may not want to have a regular catch-up or phone call, still send them an invite. Be clear that they have the option of saying no (at any stage) if they are not feeling up to it.
Don’t mention physical appearance: Physical changes in people undergoing cancer treatment can be drastic, so prepare yourself before seeing them. Even saying something that seems encouraging, such as “You don’t even look sick” can make the person self-conscious of their physical appearance. Instead, try saying to your friend “I’m so glad to see you.”
Don’t use clichés: Telling someone that everything will be alright, or that they should look on the bright side is not helpful. Instead this can make your friend feel as though you are not taking their diagnosis or feelings seriously. Listen to their concerns and acknowledge that bad things happen.
Don’t ask too many questions: If your friend does not offer you details about their diagnosis, then don’t push them for information. They may feel embarrassed or want to keep things private. Likewise, don’t share your friend’s information with others without their permission. They may be selective in who they are telling.
Being available to a friend in need is what matters most. Exactly what this looks like will depend on your relationship, what the person is going through at the time and the sorts of things which can be done to help them. Sometimes sending flowers or a card, or just picking up the phone for a chat can be the thing that brightens their day.
For information and support you can call Cancer Council SA on 13 11 20 or visit their website.