Many people know someone with cancer, a friend, a relative or a colleague at work and want to help, but don’t know how to go about offering it or what kind of support they can give. There are lots of things you can do, but perhaps a good place to start is to recognize that you should do only what feels right for you, whether that’s just listening, or giving practical help.

It may come as a surprise to know that one of the most valuable ways you can support a person with cancer is simply to listen.

However, being a good listener is not something that comes easily to everyone, so here are a few tips.

  • Check that they want to talk: is it the right time? Would they prefer to leave it for now? Or is this the wrong place? Try not to be offended if they don’t want to talk to you.
  • They may not want to talk at all or they may prefer to talk to somebody else, so ask them if they want you to arrange for someone else to visit.
  • Also, on another day they may feel differently, so do check again.
  • If they do want to talk, make sure you you give them 100% of your attention: switch off the mobile phone, choose a place where you can both feel comfortable and private, and you won’t be interrupted.
  • Keep listening and show you are listening: the gift that you bring is letting them say what they want without being interrupted, or judged.
  • Listening is not a passive activity of hearing what they are saying while your mind is elsewhere – for instance waiting for them to finish so you can interrupt and say what is on your mind – that is more about getting them to listen to you.
  • When you are listening properly to someone, your job is to make sure you understand them and show that you are attempting to grasp what they are saying.
  • For example, waiting for a diagnosis, or for test results, is a harrowing time and your relative or friend may become anxious and frustrated. They may repeat their concerns again and again, like a stuck record, and this can feel frustrating for you too, especially you are the sort of person who likes to be able to solve problems. Often in these circumstances listening is more about BEING there than DOING things.
  • Other family members and friends are also trying to adjust and come to terms with what has happened and may also need to talk.

Being diagnosed with cancer is a huge event in a person’s life, and at first they may not even believe it has happened: the shock of the news is followed by the reluctance to accept it.

As well as difficulty accepting and processing the news, the shock can be followed by strong emotions such as anger or guilt.

Anger, perhaps triggered by anxiety or feelings of helplessness or fear, can be expressed in different ways; sometimes close friends, family members, the doctors and nurses at the hospital or surgery can become targets.

Guilt can arise as feelings of letting down their family, or being a burden on others, or regrets about the past.

They may also be frightened about being in pain or undergoing treatment. And of course, they may be scared about dying.

Having cancer can also make people feel lonely and isolated. They may feel too sick or tired to continue with social activities, or they may just feel that nobody understands what they are going through.

Other times they may feel very sad, as they consider the loss of their health, the fact things may never be the same again; it can be hard to be hopeful or optimistic when the future seems so uncertain.

These emotions can come and go, different people react differently and the same person can have different feelings from one day to the next.

Not everyone appears to react emotionally. Some people seem to adjust very quickly to the shock and just “get on with it”. This does not mean they don’t feel any emotions: it may just be their way of coping. They may even start seeing new opportunities and start new hobbies.

Also, people who may appear to be strong “copers” may cope well at first, but then run out of energy and be too proud or embarassed to admit they need help, and while everyone assumes they are fine, actually they are not.

If emotional support is not something you can offer or is helpful at this time, then perhaps what you can do is offer practical help. There are lots of ways you can help, such as help with information, help with clinic visits and help with house and home.

In these days of internet and the information age, you can access a massive amount of data in moments, and it is easy to be overwhelmed with it. If you are someone who is good at internet searches, sorting out good from bad information, making phone calls, and scanning books and libraries, then perhaps the most useful thing you can do is gather information and put it in a form that is easy for the person with cancer to use.

But a word of warning: not everyone wants it. Some people would rather know nothing about their condition, while others want to know everything, so make sure what you think is useful is what they actually want, and is given at a pace they can cope with.

Another way you can help someone with cancer is to go with them to the clinic. If you do this then just check what it is that would be most helpful for you to do.

Perhaps all they want is some company and they can deal with the rest, while other times perhaps they want you to be with them when they see the specialist so you can take note of what is said, leaving them free to talk without worrying about having to remember it all later.

It may also be helpful to organize their questions, perhaps write them out as a list in order of importance, and listen carefully to the answers the doctor gives. Some doctors don’t mind if you record the session, so take a recorder with you and ask if they mind.

This is where a group of friends, each doing a small thing, adds up to big support: from helping with housework, cleaning and washing, to making sure there is food in the house, meals in the freezer, and the kids have a lift to school and back.

For example, when preparing your own meals, perhaps now and again you could make some extra portions and freeze them, then when you call round to see your friend, pop them in their freezer.

If there are lots of friends doing this, it might be useful to organize a rota, so that you don’t all do the same thing at the same time, or all appear in the same week and then don’t offer any help for several weeks.

For some people, however, this might not be what they want. It could be that housework, cooking and cleaning are tasks they enjoy, or these activities help them to keep a sense of “business as usual”, so not everyone needs or want this kind of help.

However, it is also important to keep checking, because it could be they start out not wanting this kind of support but then as energy levels change, they may change their mind.

Here are some further points, that the UK charity Macmillan Cancer Support suggest can help you think about offering support and where to start:

  1. Make your offer: is help wanted? If so, make your offer and be specific (don’t say “let me know if there is anything you need”, say “can I go to the shops for you?”).
  2. Gather (only) relevant information: in order to be useful, you will probably need to know something about their medical condition, however, bear in mind that they may not wish to discuss it or share it, or may only wish to tell you as much as is relevant to the sort of help you are offering. Respect their privacy and be careful about giving advice, it can put them under unnecessary pressure, no matter how well it is meant.
  3. Assess the needs: not only of the person who is ill but also the rest of their family. While this may be difficult to predict, it can help you and your friends decide what to offer, to whom, and when. You may wish to find out, if the person is very ill, things like who is going to take care of them durig the day, can they get to the toilet, can they make their own meals, will they need help taking medication, where can they get financial help if necessary, and what equipment might they need? Even if you are not offering to help with these things, it can help to clarify where you fit in.
  4. Decide what you can and want to do: consider what you are good at, how much time you have, and what you want and don’t want to do. It could be little things like finding films for them to watch, giving them a lift to the hospital, or picking up medication from the pharmacy, calling round with a cooked meal, or helping them choose a wig or new clothes. Or it could be big things like helping with childcare, doing things around the house, putting up handrails, or taking care of pets while they are in hospital.
  5. Start with small practical things: look at your list of things you can help with and offer just a few of the smaller ones first: don’t overwhelm them with a huge offer, and especially if you are not sure you can keep it up. Take small steps, because on both sides there are uncertainties, and balances to be struck, and things can change.
  6. Involve others and care for yourself too: recognize your limitations and don’t promise more than you can offer. Bring in others to help, with each person also only doing what is within their reach. Supporting someone else can be very rewarding, and may you find your friendship grows closer, but it can also be tiring and distressing. Don’t be afraid to seek support for yourself (in the same way as you are there for your friend, others will want to support you too). Seek out cancer support centers in your area and don’t be afraid to call help lines or drop in for information or a chat.

And last but not least, remain flexible and willing to learn; whatever plans you make, be ready to adapt and change as the situation demands. Cancer is unpredictable, and new treatments and information are emerging all the time, so don’t feel you have to do everything perfectly or know all the answers.

Sources: Canadian Cancer Society, Macmillan Cancer Support (UK).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD