This post is provided by the American Cancer Society® (www.cancer.org).
Finding out that someone you know has cancer can be difficult. You may have many questions about cancer itself and about how you should talk to and act around this person. If you’re very close to the person with cancer, this can be a frightening and stressful time for you, too.
Many studies have found that cancer survivors with strong emotional support tend to better adjust to the changes cancer brings to their lives, have a more positive outlook, and often report a better quality of life. Research has shown that people with cancer need support from friends. You can make a big difference in the life of someone with cancer.
What to Expect When Someone You Know Has Cancer
There are some common physical changes shared by many people with cancer. The cancer itself causes some of these changes and others are the result of side effects of cancer treatment. Keep in mind that each cancer journey is different. The person with cancer may or may not have any of the following:
- Hair loss, including eyebrows and eyelashes
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Appetite loss or increase
- Changes in how things taste or smell
- Extreme tiredness, called fatigue
- Pale skin and lips, or changes in skin color
- Disfigurement (for example, the loss of a limb or a breast after cancer surgery)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Problems with sleep
- Poor concentration (sometimes called chemo brain)
Each person reacts in their own way to cancer and its treatment. It’s normal to feel sad and grieve over the changes that a cancer diagnosis brings. The person’s emotions and mood can change from day to day, even from hour to hour. This is normal. A person with cancer may go through any or all of the following emotions and thoughts:
- A sense of lack of control
- Mood swings
- Much stronger and more intense feelings
- A sense of being disconnected or isolated from others
Over time, the person may discover some changes that are good:
- A greater sense of resilience or strength
- Peace, or a feeling of being at ease
- A clearer idea of their priorities in life
- More appreciation for their quality of life and the people they care about
Basic Do’s And Don’ts When Someone You Know Has Cancer
- Take your cues from the person with cancer. Some people are very private, while others will openly talk about their illness. Respect the person’s need to share or their need for privacy.
- Let them know you care.
- Respect their decisions about how their cancer will be treated, even if you disagree.
- Include the person in usual work projects, plans, and social events. Let them be the one to tell you if the commitment is too much to manage.
- Check before doing something for your co-worker with cancer, no matter how helpful you think you are being. Keep them up-to-date with what’s happening at work.
- Listen without always feeling that you have to respond. Sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs the most.
- Expect the person with cancer to have good days and bad days, emotionally and physically.
- Keep your relationship as normal and balanced as possible. While greater patience and compassion are called for during times like these, your friend should continue to respect your feelings, as you respect their feelings.
- Offer to help in concrete, specific ways.
- Offer advice they don’t ask for, or be judgmental.
- Feel you must put up with serious displays of temper or mood swings. You shouldn’t accept disruptive or abusive behavior just because someone is ill.
- Assume your co-worker no longer can do the job. They need to feel like a valuable contributing member of the company or department.
- Take things too personally. It’s normal for the person with cancer to be quieter than usual, to need time alone, and to be angry at times.
- Be afraid to talk about the illness.
- Always feel you have to talk about cancer. The person with cancer may enjoy conversations that don’t involve the illness.
- Be afraid to hug or touch your friend if that was a part of your friendship before the illness.
- Be patronizing. (Try not to use a “How sick are you today?” tone when asking how the person is doing.)
- Tell the person with cancer, “I can imagine how you must feel,” because you really can’t.
- Go around someone with cancer if you are sick, or have a fever or any other signs of infection.
What You Can Do: Visits
Cancer can be very isolating. Try to spend time with your friend – you may be a welcome distraction and help them feel like they did before cancer became a major focus of their life.
- Always call before you visit. Be understanding if your friend can’t see you at that time.
- Schedule a visit that allows you to give physical and emotional support for the caregiver, too. Maybe you can arrange to stay with your friend while the caregiver gets out of the house for a couple of hours.
- Make short, regular visits rather than long, infrequent ones. Understand that your friend might not want to talk, but they may not like being alone either.
- Begin and end the visit with a touch, a hug, or a handshake.
- Be understanding if the family asks you to leave.
- Always refer to your next visit so your friend can look forward to it.
- Offer to bring a snack or treat to share so your visit doesn’t impose on the caregiver.
- Try to visit at times other than weekends or holidays, when others may visit. Time can seem the same to a house-bound patient. A Tuesday morning can be just as lonely as a Saturday night.
- Take your own needlework, crossword puzzle, or book, and keep your friend company while they doze or watch TV.
- Share music they enjoy, watch their favorite TV show, or watch a movie with your friend.
- Read sections of a book or newspaper, or find topics of interest online and summarize them for your friend.
- Offer to take a short walk with your friend if they are up to it.
What You Can Do: Conversation
Many people worry that they don’t know what to say to someone with cancer. Try to remember that the most important thing is not what you say – it’s that you’re there and willing to listen. Try to hear and understand how your friend feels. Let them know that you’re open to talking whenever they feel like it. Or, if the person doesn’t feel like talking, let them know that’s OK, too.
- Gear the conversation to your friend’s attention span so they don’t feel overwhelmed or guilty about not being able to talk.
- Help your friend focus on whatever brings out good feelings, such as sports, religion, travel, or pets.
- Help your friend keep an active role in the friendship by asking advice, opinions, and questions – even if you don’t get the response you expect.
- Ask your friend if they’re having any discomfort. Suggest new ways to be more comfortable, such as using more pillows or moving the furniture.
- Give honest compliments, such as “You look rested today.”
- Support your friend’s feelings. Allow them to be negative, withdrawn, or silent. Resist the urge to change the subject.
- Don’t urge your friend to fight the disease if they feel it’s too hard to do it.
- Don’t tell them how strong they are; they may feel the need to act strong even when they’re sad or exhausted.
- Be sure to include your friend when talking to others in the room.
- Assume that your friend can hear you even if they seem to be asleep or dazed.
- Don’t offer medical advice or your opinions on things like diet, vitamins, and herbal therapies.
- Don’t remind them of past behaviors that might be related to the illness, such as drinking or smoking. Some people feel guilty over those things.
What You Can Do: Errands and Projects
Many people want to help friends facing a difficult time. Keep in mind that wanting to help and offering to be there for your friend is what matters most.
- Take care of any urgent errands your friend or the caregiver needs right away.
- Run an errand for the caregiver; it’s as helpful as an errand for your friend.
- Your friend may appreciate it more if you take care of frequent, scheduled errands, rather than fewer ones that take a lot of time.
- Look for ways to help on a regular basis.
- Plan projects in advance and start them only after talking with the caregiver.
- Get a list of tasks. Organize friends, neighbors, and co-workers to help complete the tasks on a regular, weekly basis. There are special websites that can help with this.
- Make lunch for your friend and their caregiver one day a week. If your friend is getting chemo, ask what they feel like eating.
- Clean your friend’s home for an hour every Saturday.
- Care for your friend’s lawn or garden twice a month.
- Babysit, pet-sit, or take care of your friend’s plants.
- Commit to taking their child to soccer practice or music lessons twice a week.
- Return or pick up library books, movies, or books on CD.
- Buy groceries.
- Go to the post office.
- Pick up prescriptions.
- Help make to-do lists.
- Drive family or friends to and from the airport or hotel.
If you’re a caregiver for someone with cancer, don’t forget these tips to help prevent caregiver stress and burnout.
Text material in this post is used with permission of the American Cancer Society® and is a shortened version of two articles published on www.cancer.org. To view the full, original articles, please click here and here.
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