How to Help a Loved One with Cancer

I was asked to post about this topic by my good friend, Dale– what do you do when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer.

This is a situation where it’s easy to feel helpless. Right now, two of my relatives and a good friend are dealing with cancer diagnosis– all of them pretty serious.

My maternal grandmother also died of kidney cancer so I’ve dealt with this from both ends– both as a family member and as a healthcare provider even though it’s not my primary area of focus. I’ve been there when families receive the news that their child has cancer.

So, if I could offer any helpful tips, this is where I would start.

1. Realize when a family member first gets a cancer diagnosis— they will likely not hear anything past those three words. “You have cancer.” While your family member’s mind is reeling, your job will be to remember (and I would even take notes) about what the doctor says next because the person receiving the diagnosis is in shock.

2. It is really helpful to have a family member go to the doctor’s appointments to take notes. Keep a notebook and journal with everything the doctor gives you. Write down questions that you want to ask at your next appointment. It’s easy for things to slip from your mind when your face to face with the doctor.

3. Get a second opinion. I do encourage second opinions for all major diagnosis and surgeries. Your provider should not be threatened by the fact that you want a second opinion. In fact, they should encourage it. You may not want to delay treatment, particularly if you’ve been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, but that also doesn’t mean you can’t get one. It’s not a betrayal of your doctor and it also doesn’t mean you’re going to leave them.

The purpose of a second opinion is to make sure the treatments are relatively aligned and you don’t have a doctor coming out of left field.

4. Do things without asking. I know this may seem rude but what happens when people ask you for help? “No, I’m okay. I’ll let you know if I need anything.” And then, they never call. There are lots of ways to do this and with on-line sign up sheets so pervasive– it’s easy to set up. Set up a sign-up sheet for providing meals, cleaning the house, or giving caregivers respite breaks. If that seems overwhelming, show up at the door and say, “I’m here to clean your house. Where is the vacuum?”

5. Do fun things. A cancer patient doesn’t always want to talk or think about cancer and they still want to live life. Don’t stop calling or inviting them to do activities because you think they’ll be too sick and/or tired.

6. Do cancer things with them. At the same time, don’t be afraid to do “cancer” things with them. Go with them when they get their head shaved. Offer to go wig shopping with them.

7. Pray. This might seems trite but it has been proven through scientific study that patients that are being prayed over medically do better.

8. Be okay if they want to stop treatment. Hopefully, you won’t face this point and your loved one with cancer will have successful treatment and go on to lead a full life. However, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some patients make the decision to forgo treatment. They haven’t come to this decision lightly. Be supportive and make the most of the time you have left. Let them know what they’ve meant to you.

What are your suggestions in how to help a loved one during a cancer diagnosis and treatment?

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