When someone we care about is battling cancer, we want to support them and their family. We want to do or say something that will make a difference, maybe make things easier.
What does support look like, sound like and will it really help?
When Jeff and I are at SCCA (Seattle Cancer Care Alliance), we meet families who are all trying to navigate and manage the challenges cancer drops into daily life. Below are the 5 common themes we consistently hear from other families – combined with our experiences with cancer over the last 10 years.
#1: Acknowledge the Situation.
Maybe it sounds crazy, maybe too basic? Helpful support comes in the form of thoughtful words that acknowledge the pain, fear, and difficulty the family is experiencing. It’s OK (and normal) if you aren’t sure what to say or you don’t fully understand what they are experiencing.
Families battling cancer aren’t looking for perfection – what’s important is that the words are heartfelt and honest and they know you are willing to walk beside them.
What it sounds like:
- I’m so sorry. (yes, this is enough)
- I love you and want to help in some way. What can I do to lighten the load? (see #2)
- I’d like to stop by and chat (meet for coffee; go for a walk). What day works for you?
- Call often, send cards or small goodies that remind of times spent together. (tea, books, movies)
#2: Go Beyond Offering to Help – Make It Happen.
Asking what you can do to help is a thoughtful gesture. What brings relief is taking steps to make it happen. Families battling cancer are focused on preparing questions for the doctors; scheduling treatments, making work, childcare and pet care arrangements. Life changes day-to-day and feels chaotic.
What it looks like:
- Offer to arrange for house cleaning. (check local cleaning services – some offer free cleaning for families undergoing treatment.)
- Make soups and bone broth and deliver in air-tight storage containers. (broth provides super-powered nutrients during chemotherapy!) See Recipe: Magic Mineral Broth from Rebecca Katz
- Help with lawn care; walk the poochie; water plants while families are at the hospital.
- Put together a ‘Fun Kit’ for the kids to keep them occupied during appointments. Or, create a Chemo Survival Kit to make surgery, radiation or chemotherapy a bit more manageable.
Treatment days are long and hospital food is well, hospital food. Coming home to a warm meal or a clean house provides practical, much-needed respite for families. Families comment how much they appreciate it when relief comes in the form of helping with day-to-day chores, allowing them to focus on more immediate issues.
#3: Remind Them They Are More Than Cancer.
When families are living with cancer, it’s easy for life to revolve around everything cancer. Life is different; however, they are still your unique friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Many times, relief comes in the form of reminding them that cancer is a (big) part of their life – yet not their entire life.
Share the story about the crazy boss, the funny neighbor and tell a funny story about the kids. We want to know what’s good and not so good in your life. And, we want to share non-cancer stories and give our minds a break. These normal conversations help everyone come up for air and create perspective.
What works for us:
- Jeff and I have learned to limit our ‘cancer conversations’ to 10-15 minutes among ourselves and with others. The caveat is when we’re preparing for an upcoming oncologist appointment. Keeping the conversation short prevents us from diving into the rabbit hole of negative thoughts. It’s our way to maintain a positive state of mind and give time to talk through important items.
- At the end of every day, we share 3 good things that happened that day. Whether it’s eating dinner together, keeping dinner down :), having an interesting client conversation or starting a new project – it’s a proven daily exercise to increase positivity and gratitude. Watch Video: Why 3 Good Things Works
#4: Don’t Disappear.
When a friend was diagnosed, her siblings never asked how she was doing throughout the entire year of treatment. She felt abandoned when she needed them most. What she wanted was to know they cared. What she felt was alone and hurt by their choices.
Sometimes, family and close friends disappear when they hear the word cancer. It hits too close to home, they feel helpless and they choose to leave the building. It happens more than you think.
Dr. Rainer from Georgia Southern University who studies grief and relationships describes this “kind of distancing as “stiff-arming” – creating as much space as possible from the possibility of trauma. It’s magical thinking in the service of denial: If bad things are happening to you and I stay away from you, then I’ll be safe.” Read the full New York Times article
#5: End of Treatment is NOT the End of Cancer.
When treatment is over, returning to life “pre-cancer” often doesn’t feel right. Many family members, especially the survivor, asks themselves: “What now?”. For those with metastatic disease, new concerns arise and the focus shifts to survivability and quality of life. Each family may celebrate the last day of (active) treatment in a specific way; however, the next morning, things are different.
Providing support to the family battling cancer is recognizing that life is different. Perspectives have changed; what was once important tends to shift and it will take some time to feel steady again.
What tips do you have for helping a family battling cancer? Share in the comments.