How to Show Support for Someone Who Has Cancer

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is horrifying news that deeply affects patients and their loved ones. Offering support is crucial, yet we may feel we don’t know the “right” thing to say or do. Still, we can’t let feelings of discomfort stop us from coming alongside our loved one at a time of great need.

Cindy Hendren, whose son Ethan was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in 2006 at age 15, says, “We often felt like we were floating at the end of a string far, far away. Hearing from others reminded us that we were connected and that people were out there supporting us.”
Without question it’s difficult to understand what our loved one is going through, so we’ve gathered advice to help you offer appropriate emotional and physical support.

When visiting someone with cancer, keep in mind that every conversation doesn’t have to be about the disease.

“We loved when people would come over and talk about anything but cancer,” says Hendren. “We were buried in that cancer world, and having conversations that didn’t deal with cancer felt like someone had thrown us a lifeline. We didn’t want to be defined by Ethan’s cancer—and neither did he!”

Be mindful of boundaries.

Dana Bresler, a husband and father of two, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 62. Above all else, he says it’s important to weigh how close you are to the patient, along with the seriousness of his or her disease. “If you are close enough that they have shared exact details of their illness, then you should be directly supportive,” says Bresler. “On the other hand, if you have heard of their illness secondhand through church or another organization, you might show your support through that organization.”

Offer well-defined help for everyday needs.

For many people, asking for assistance can be a challenge. To that end, reaching out with practical suggestions (and following through!) can ease many burdens along the way. Says Hendren, “I found when people asked me what I needed, I was more likely to say I was fine and not needing help, as opposed to accepting help from those who came forward with specific ideas. That way, I didn’t feel like I was asking people to go through any trouble to support us; they’d already gone through the trouble.”

Avoid focusing on solutions.

When we learn about a diagnosis, our first tendency may be to tell comparison stories or give input based on life experiences or personal research. Yet even with the best intentions, this problem-solving mode isn’t always helpful. Ann Bresler, whose husband, Dana, is a cancer survivor, says, “It’s important to respect a patient’s views even if you don’t feel you’d react the same way or do the same thing. Always be positive. Even when things look the worst, you never know what the outcome may be.”

“Remember that it is ultimately the patient’s decision as to how they want to go forward—not yours,” adds Hendren. “This can be very painful, especially when you think you know the best way to deal with it. Resist the temptation to offer your opinion as to where and what the best course of treatment is, unless you are asked. Having faith in the medical personnel treating your loved one is very important, and unless you have verifiable information to the contrary—keep your opinions to yourself. Respect the wishes of the patient.”