You feel it in the pit of your stomach, as if you’ve been punched. The doctor said the word-cancer-and your world spins around you, echoing, unreal. Not only do you feel the pain of what that word may mean for the future, but a worse feeling that shrinks you down small in your seat-helplessness. Because it’s not you the doctor is talking about. It’s someone you love.
Of course you can’t take away the cancer, which is probably what you’d like to do, but you don’t have to feel helpless. Your loved one is going to need your support, and there are a lot of things you can do for her as she embarks on this new and difficult journey. Treatments are improving every day, and more and more patients are surviving and going on to live full and happy lives. Take it one day at a time, and try the following tips to help you stay strong and be as supportive as you can be.
1. Listen. Your loved one is going to experience all kinds of emotions as a result of the diagnosis. One of the best things you can do is simply listen. Don’t cheerlead, don’t sugar-coat, don’t tell her everything is going to be fine. (Cancer patients hear that too much.) Don’t worry about what to say. Just let her vent, and assure her that you will be with her and that she has the strength to get through it. Offer empathetic statements like, “Yes, I can see how you’d feel that way,” or “that’s completely understandable.” Don’t, however, say you know how she feels, because you don’t. Let her tell you. Try to relax and accept whatever emotions come out.
2. Refrain from giving advice. We all want to help, and a newly diagnosed cancer patient is often bombarded by well-intentioned friends and loved ones suggesting this treatment or that supplement or this alternative therapy or that clinical trial. Research to become informed, ask the doctor questions, and help safeguard your loved one’s best interests, but refrain from giving a lot of unsolicited advice.
3. Take care of yourself. You’re going to have just as many conflicting, difficult, and scary emotions as the person who has cancer, particularly if you’re very close to him. Journal, talk to outside friends, educate yourself, and consider joining a caregiver’s support group or online forum. Eat well, get your sleep, exercise, and stay healthy. (You can even share these activities with your loved one, and you both will benefit.) The healthier you are, the more you can help.
4. Offer specific assistance. Friends often throw out the phrase, “Call me if you need anything,” without realizing that this can put the patient in the uncomfortable position of having to “bother” you. Offer to help with specific tasks, like picking up the kids from soccer practice, caring for pets, getting groceries, or driving your loved one to treatments. Help him remember his chemo appointments, or other important events and times that he may forget with so much going on. Finally, ask him what you can do to help, and wait patiently for the answer.
5. Keep things normal. Many cancer patients describe situations where loved ones treated them like invalids after their diagnoses. Try to keep things as normal as possible. If your wife wants to cook dinner, let her. It will help her feel useful, and give her something else to think about besides the cancer. Don’t forget to do your usual fun things together if you can, and keep a sense of humor. Laughter really is the best medicine.
Do you have advice on how to support a loved one with cancer? Please share it with us.
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