Here’s What to Say and Do to Show You Care
Chances are you know several people with cancer right now, whether they’re family members, close friends or acquaintances. According to the American Cancer Society, one in three women has a risk of developing cancer in her lifetime, and one in every two men. Look around at the people in your life, and you’ll realize these are staggering odds.
Just because it’s common doesn’t mean one person’s experience is the same as anyone else’s. Yet all of their journeys can be made a little warmer and a lot more comfortable if they are surrounded by friends and family who listen, offer real help and treat them the same as always.
We talked with patients and survivors, a chaplain, a clinical health psychologist and a medical oncologist to learn practical recommendations on what to say and do to provide the most welcomed support and resources that show you care.
First, try to avoid saying the following:
- “Give me a call if you need anything.” (They probably need something, but aren’t going to ask you and don’t want to be a bother.)
- “I know you’ll beat this.” (You don’t know if they will beat it, and trying to be an optimistic cheerleader sounds like you want to talk them out of what they’re really feeling, which may be shock and fear. This may isolate them even more.)
- “I understand what you’re going through.” (Even if you’ve gone through cancer treatment yourself, everyone’s journey is different and you truly don’t know how they feel.)
- “My friend’s cousin’s wife had the same type of cancer, and she did this alternative treatment that you should try.” (Some appreciate the suggestions; some don’t. Best stay away from offering unsolicited advice or assuming they need a different treatment plan.)
- “You look so beautiful bald!” (Statements like this sound inauthentic. Unless you are a trusted family member or very close friend, it’s best not to comment on their appearance unless it is genuine and unrelated to the effect of the treatment.)
- “How are you doing?” via text message. (The answer is longer and more complicated than anyone wants to type in a text message – or receive, for that matter.)
- “Visiting my friend Sue after her chemo treatment!” via social media post. (Some post frequently throughout their treatment, and others never post a peep about it. Either way, respect their privacy and ask before you tag or share anything about your friends.)
It’s okay if you’ve said those things – lots of people do. The fact that you reached out is what’s most important. Here’s what our experts suggest as the best ways to be the most supportive.
Here are the best things to say and do to show you care:
- Be proactive and offer specific help. Ask if they need a ride to and from appointments, if the family needs meals, if they want someone to wait in the waiting room with them, and when they are free for lunch. Perhaps offer to help with housework, yard work, childcare, errands or writing thank-you notes.
- Be present. Say, “I’m here for you. I’m available.” Dr. Gregory Britt, Medical Director at the Cancer Center and Section Chief of Medical Oncology at Saint Joseph Hospital, says that sometimes a person’s friends fear what’s going on and they withdraw from the person with a diagnosis. “That’s when patients are the most vulnerable. They need to know their friends are still there for them.”
- Respect their time and energy levels. Generally, shorter visits and chats are better than long ones, but let them decide. Always call to make sure it’s a good time for a visit, and ask how long you should stay. Keep in mind it might be tiring for them and their family to host visitors too often or for too long.
- Let them know you’re thinking of them often. Ask if they prefer a text message or a phone call. Send cards or notes. Give gift cards to online retailers so they can choose items they need or want. You may want to let them know you’re praying for them.
- Be real and acknowledge what they’re going through. They may be struggling physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Let them know their fears and concerns are valid. Dr. Britt suggests something like this: “Wow, this must be really scary for you. This is going to be a tough road, but I’m going to be here for you along the way.”
- Ask who is coordinating meals, or take on the job yourself. A patient’s spouse or close family member may be coordinating meal delivery, including dietary restrictions or special requests. But sometimes no one is handling this role and it can be daunting for the patient. It’s a great way for a friend to step up and provide real, practical help.
- Listen. Be a listening ear and recognize that it’s okay that you can’t fix the problem. According to Bret Miller, Chaplain at SCL Health’s St. Vincent Healthcare and the Frontier Cancer Center in Billings, Montana, just ask them what they are going through, what they are experiencing, how they are feeling and what the doctor says about their treatment. And then listen.
- Keep in touch regularly, even after treatment. “There’s often an inundation of support at the diagnosis, but it tends to fade,” says Dr. Jana Bolduan Lomax, Director of Cancer Support Services at Cancer Centers of Colorado, Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver. “As patients finish treatment, they often say that no one’s reaching out anymore, and that’s when they feel isolated. They need support and activities more than ever.” And what about those who are not likely to survive? “Sometimes a cure isn’t possible, and the care team, family and friends need to shift gears and improve the quality of life while helping the patient through the dying process,” says Dr. Britt. “It’s difficult. It’s part of life. It’s a privilege for the oncology team and the patient’s inner circle to be a part of this process.”
- Reinforce sources of strength. Say, “Can you think of something that would give you strength?” If they can identify anything, encourage them to hold onto it. Perhaps an opportunity to deepen their faith, the use of a website like CaringBridge to stay connected with loved ones, participation in support groups, or journaling. Besides serving as a chaplain, Miller is experiencing his own cancer journey, as he’s on his fourth round of treatment for cancer that started in the bladder. He has found journaling to be a source of strength for himself and for those he visits. “It provides a release and a picture of the journey that you can share with the people who are important to you.”
- Offer distractions and fun activities. Sometimes they need a distraction and a break from thinking about cancer. Share a laugh, talk about memories, travel plans, pets and what’s happening among other friends. Offer activities, funny movies and games that bring a lighter moment to this thing called life.
A bouquet of oncology resources
Like a bouquet of wildflowers, hospitals offer a variety of oncology support programs that can make the journey a little sweeter. You might want to ask your friends if they’ve considered support services, such as those offered by certain SCL Health hospitals: aromatherapy, dietitians, massage, mind-body medicine, nurse navigation, palliative care, psych oncology, sexual health and fertility preservation, spiritual care and support groups – to name a few. You may be able to help make connections, provide transportation or go along for moral support.
“Some patients just want to be told where to go, and others want to manage their own health and know all the options,” says Dr. Lomax. “You may want to ask about their treatment plan and how they like their healthcare team. If they are struggling with treatment decisions or feel like they’re unsure about their healthcare team, you could suggest that they seek a second opinion.”
A second opinion of a cancer diagnosis is fairly common, especially if the diagnosis is life-threatening or advanced. Dr. Britt says, “A good medical oncologist will encourage patients to get a second opinion if that’s what they want to do. But you don’t want to delay treatment. Sometimes I say, ‘This is the standard of care, but if you want another opinion, let’s start treatment now and get a second opinion along the way.’ It is important that the patient’s relationship with the care team is a good fit, because it’s a long-term one.”
To find a second opinion (or a first one), search SCL Health’s Find a Doctor tool for oncology providers. You can search by physician type, specialty, location and gender.
Every person with cancer can benefit from having friends who are compassionate, supportive and present. May we all be – and find – that kind of friend.
For more on this topic, check out the book, “How to Help Your Friend with Cancer,” published by the American Cancer Society in 2015. SCL Health’s Dr. Jana Bolduan Lomax served as a consultant to the book. The author is Colleen Dolan Fullbright, and it is available on Amazon and other book retailers.
Be a champion of cancer screenings for yourself, your friends and family.
Screenings can find cancer at an early stage before symptoms appear, when the abnormal tissue or cancer is easier to treat or cure. You may want to:
- Visit the American Cancer Society website and review recommendations for cancer screenings, so you can have an informed conversation with your physician.
- See your Primary Care Physician every year for a physical. (Need one? Search SCL Health’s Find a Doctor tool online.)
- Talk with your physician about the cancer screenings you need, considering your gender, age, family history and environment.
- Follow your physician’s recommendations, which may include screenings for these common types of cancer:
- Breast Cancer
- Cervical Cancer
- Colorectal Cancer
- Lung Cancer
- Prostate Cancer
- Skin Cancer