Supporting a Loved One With Cancer

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For someone living with cancer, the support of family and friends is critical in their journey. Yet, a diagnosis of cancer often catches everyone by surprise and shifts the roles we are accustomed to playing. Those who have not personally struggled with cancer, though well-meaning, are unable to understand completely what their loved one is going through both emotionally and physically. As you face this new territory, what are some tips that can guide you in how to support your loved one through their often lonely journey?


A Cancer Survivor's Husband on Just Being There

Ways to Help Your Friends and Loved Ones With Cancer

Below we will share 14 tips on what you can do and what you can say to convey your love and care to your loved one with cancer. These are just a few ideas to get you thinking, and as you read through them you may think of others that would be even better for your family member or friend. These are also only suggestions. If you find that you have not been doing some of these, such as going to appointments, don't worry. This list is not meant to make you feel guilty! 

Speaking of guilt, remind yourself that you are also going through the emotional roller coaster. You also deserve and need support. None of us are perfect even if we are not facing the anxiety and helplessness of having a loved one with cancer. Don't forget to pamper yourself and be good to yourself as well.

Consciously Listen

Simply listening to someone with cancer may sound easy, but is oftentimes surprisingly hard. We want to make things better. We want to fix things. But a listening ear is often what “helps” the most. Let your loved one express his feelings, even if those feelings make you uncomfortable. You can be fairly certain that if your loved one brings up a difficult topic, such as dying, he has been thinking about it for a while. Allow him the opportunity to have the comfort of sharing. Don’t judge, don’t interrupt, and listen with your eyes and body, not only your ears.

As an added note, keep in mind that, contrary to rumors, keeping a positive attitude with cancer has not been shown to influence survival. Rather, it's important for your loved one to express negative emotions with a trusted friend or family member and to release them.

Deal With Your Own Feelings First

As caregivers, we are faced with our own set of difficult emotions and fears. What will happen to my loved one? Will he have pain? Will he live? What will happen to me? How will my life change? Try to face your own fears first, so that you are truly able to listen attentively. You may also be struggling with grief. If you find yourself feeling alone in that difficult spot between trying to maintain hope and grieving the future, make sure to learn about anticipatory grief.

Say “I Love You” Often

No matter how much your actions express your love, they are not a substitute for your words. Affirm them. Praise their efforst. Even if all they can do after a round of chemotherapy is brush their teeth, let them know they are special and valued.

Step Into Their Shoes

As you continue to read these tips, it can be helpful to try to imagine yourself in your loved one's shoes. What does it really feel like to have cancer? Of course, you can't completely understand the pain and fears and emotional roller coaster of cancer by just imagining it, but imagining yourself facing cancer may give you some insight into concepts you may not otherwise understand. 

Lend a Hand

For those with cancer, life goes on despite running for treatment and coping with annoying side effects like cancer-related fatigue. Bills accumulate. Dust gathers. Something as simple as offering to help clean the house for an hour is often deeply appreciated. Don't wait for your loved one to ask for help. “Can I come over Wednesday at 2 PM and wash a few windows?” An important point here is to offer help and make it specific

Go With Them to Appointments

Attending appointments with your loved one can express your caring in many ways. Hospitals and clinics can be frightening places and waiting can be excruciating. Bring a notepad. Ask questions. Take notes. But make sure to allow your loved one to make her own decisions.

Add a Touch of Humor

Humor can be the best medicine. Be sensitive to the times that your loved one needs to express grief, but be ready to laugh and smile as well.

Respect Their Need to Be Alone

Sometimes our loved ones with cancer claim they want to be alone so they don’t bother us, but other times, they truly want to be alone. Monitor other visitors as well. Does your loved one feel that she has to entertain them, but does not want to offend them and ask them to go? If so, gently let these other visitors know when your loved one appears tired and thank them for visiting.

Be an Information Gatherer

Having information appears to ease some of the anxiety faced by people with cancer, and at times, can even make a difference in outcomes. Learn how to research your loved one's disease online, ask your cancer center for information, take notes, and ask questions at doctors’ appointments. Keep in mind that some people do not want their loved ones to share the latest information on clinical trials or to suggest yet another treatment. Listen to your loved one.

Don’t Hide Things From Them or Other Loved Ones

Our loved ones with cancer need an honest assessment of their condition to make decisions that best fit their needs—even if that honesty is painful. Be honest with other family members, and especially children. We want to protect our children from the reality of what their parent or grandparent may be facing, but children often imagine the worst. Even if the prognosis is poor, sharing with children honestly gives them the opportunity to begin their grieving and express their love.

Help Them Find Support

No matter how much someone without cancer can empathize, talking to someone facing the same challenges can be invaluable for someone facing cancer. Ask your cancer center for information on in-person support groups Many online support groups are available as well, and carry the advantage of being able to connect to others with cancer and cancer caregivers 24 hours a day. If your loved one is not interested in a support group, check into the matching services provided by organizations such as LUNGevity, in which people with cancer are matched up with others facing the same cancer.

Be Willing to Bend

Family members often have many different opinions when a loved one has cancer, based on their own life experiences. Friction often develops, and hurt and resentment can follow. Your loved one does not want to be the source of family conflict. Try to hear each other's viewpoints no matter how dissimilar they may seem. Keep in mind that all of you have a common goal; you all want to support your loved one.

Take Care of Yourself

Eating healthy, trying to get enough sleep, and maintaining a balance in your own life will help you provide the support your loved one needs. Check out further tips for cancer family caregivers to nurture yourself as you care for others.

What Does Your Loved One Wish You Knew?

A great resource for learning how to support a loved one living with cancer is, "Let Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know." No matter how hard we try to walk in the shoes of someone with cancer, it helps to hear the thoughts, desires, and wishes shared by people who have actually walked that difficult road. And finally, your loved one probably doesn't yet even realize it, but being an advocate for her in her care is totally priceless. Check out tips on how to advocate for yourself or a loved one with cancer in order to get the best care possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What do I say to someone whose loved one has cancer?

    When you know someone whose loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, you can offer to lend an ear if they need someone to talk to. It might sound something like, "I'm sorry to hear about your loved one. I'm available if you ever want to talk." If they take you up on the offer, be sure to actively listen so that you can offer support when needed.

  • How do I support someone with cancer from afar?

    You can support someone with cancer from afar by keeping in contact. Whether it is by phone, email, or video call, showing someone that they have other people who care about them can make a difference. It might help to arrange a regular routine for when you plan to talk. For example, an evening phone call every few days at an agreed-upon time could give you both something to look forward to.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Morishima T, Miyashiro I, Inoue N, et al. Effects of laughter therapy on quality of life in patients with cancer: An open-label, randomized controlled trial. PLOS ONE. 2019;14(6):e0219065.

Additional Reading

By Lynne Eldridge, MD
 Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."