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As a cancer survivor, I have strong opinions about what cancer patients need most from friends and family.

Before I jump in, I want to warn you that some of my opinions might offend you.  But that’s because most people don’t give cancer patients everything they need when going through their cancer journey.  And many people give very little (yet somehow don’t realize it).

5 Things You Need to Know About Cancer Patients & What They’re Going Through

Understanding what cancer patients need most from you isn’t just about what to say and do for them.  It’s also about how you go about it – the tone you use, the viewpoint you take, and whether (and when) you should follow their lead or ask tough questions. 

If you want to go about it the right way, you need to understand the following 5 things about what they’re going through and how cancer is affecting them:

#1: Cancer Patients Are the Same People, With a New Perspective

People often treat cancer patients as if they’re foreign beings from Mars.

During my breast cancer battle, there were people who obviously didn’t know what to say or do.  Those folks would ignore me or act nervous and aloof when close by.  It took me a long while to come to terms with this, but I eventually realized that they didn’t know how to communicate with me because they assumed I was somehow different.

The thing is: cancer patients don’t miraculously change because they’ve been diagnosed with cancer.   They still have the same pre-cancer hopes, dreams, and goals for their lives.  What’s changed is their viewpoint, because they’ve been reminded how fragile and fleeting life is and that they might not be able to achieve everything they had hoped for in life.

Here’s what I want you to understand: this makes them wiser about a fact of life.  Life has always been fragile.  The end can come for any one at any time.  That hasn’t changed.  What’s different is that they’re dealing with something that’s brought that front and center.

#2: Cancer Patients Are Scared (Even If They Seem Brave and Courageous)

One of the most common things said about cancer patients is how brave and courageous they are.  It’s as if people think that cancer patients deserve a medal of honor just because they’ve been stricken by cancer (which, if you think about it is a bit weird).

I promise that, regardless of what you see, they’re terrified, emotionally raw, and physically battered.  And they feel utterly vulnerable.  Vulnerability isn’t exactly something most people like feeling.  It’s awkward and scary as heck.  Because of that, your loved one might seem fine and then suddenly lose it.

Vulnerability is something I hated feeling, yet was forced to deal with during my cancer journey.  Because the simple truth is: everyone is vulnerable.  Cancer and other illnesses just highlight that fact.

Many cancer patients will put on a good face and pretend that they have a handle on their emotions and feelings.  Don’t let them fool you.  Even the most put-together folks feel fear, vulnerability, and overwhelm from their experiences (and will try to hide it from you).

As someone who fainted on her way to the bathroom and lied to her worried husband about it as he was banging on the door (after hearing me go down), I know what I’m talking about. ;-)

#3: Cancer Patients Aren’t Dead – They’re Still Alive

Cancer patients aren’t dead, but ALIVE.  You don’t need to treat them like they’re already half-way to the grave.  That’s especially the case if their prognosis is dire.

When I was being treated, there was a woman at my kids’ school who I walked by every morning on the way to drop off my boys.  The look she gave me said it all… “so sorry that you’re dying, it must be horrible!”.  Although my initial prognosis wasn’t good, I still got out of bed every morning, dropped my kids off at school, had a full day, and went to bed every night.  I was ALIVE and LIVING my life as best I could.

No matter what the prognosis, your loved ones are still with you. They can even laugh and be relatively happy during this time.  Don’t ever forget that.

#4: Cancer Patients Have Medical Professionals Telling Them What’s Best

Cancer patients are surrounded by a team of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals telling them what to eat, drink, and do during treatment.  When treatment is over, their doctors will give them additional guidelines for healthy living and well-being post-treatment.

They don’t need you to add to the mix unless asked.  And even when asked, keep in mind that cancer patients need to trust and connect with their caregivers.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t discuss treatment options and lifestyle choices with them, but that you must take into account the cancer patient’s need to trust their doctor.  Be respectful in these encounters.

[Recommended Reading: For more about what to say to cancer patients (and what NOT to say), read How to Know What to Say to Cancer Survivors and Patients].

#5: Cancer Patients Have a Mind of Their Own

Cancer doesn’t mean that the patient has lost their ability to make decisions for themselves.

This is something I found infuriating when being treated.  Although I was lucky not to have too many people question my decisions, it came up from time to time.  And I saw it occur a lot in fellow patients who were being treated at the same time I was.  Well-meaning family members and friends would badger them about their decisions and question them incessantly.

Cancer patients still have a mind of their own.  And they have a right to use it, even when it comes to treatment and lifestyle decisions you might not agree with.

2 Things You Need to Understand About You

If you want to provide the best support possible to loved ones battling cancer, then you must also understand 2 important things about yourself and how your thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions can get in the way:

#1: You Don’t Always Know What’s Best (Even Though You Have Their Best Interest at Heart)

Having a cancer patient’s best interest at heart isn’t the same thing as knowing what’s best for them.  Because you’re not them.

The first few weeks after my diagnosis, I received a lot of advice about treatment options, doctors, and how to keep my hair through chemo.  The advice and questioning about my hair was the most annoying part.  Many people didn’t understand why I chose not to use a cold cap during chemotherapy so that I could keep my hair.

Of course, there were reasons (that I shouldn’t have had to justify to anyone).  I had triple negative breast cancer, which is aggressive and has a high recurrence rate.  And one of it’s favorite recurrence spots is in the brain.  At the time of my treatment, the cold cap was relatively new and there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about it’s effect on the chemo drugs in the brain.  There was even concern from my doctor that it could potentially impede it’s effectiveness there.  I decided that my hair wasn’t worth it.

The folks who questioned me thought they were being helpful.  But they were really being rude by not respecting my decisions.  Don’t presume you know better, as it won’t be received well (and likely isn’t true).

#2: Their Illness Has Nothing to Do With You

When someone close to you is diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to feel fear, stress and worry.  And it’s also normal to think about what you would do in the same situation.  But although these thoughts and feelings are expected, don’t make your loved one’s illness about you.

Because it’s not about you.

This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your feelings and thoughts.  On the contrary, you must deal with them to stay emotionally healthy and be supportive to your loved one with cancer.  But do it with someone else and don’t go on about how their illness makes you feel.

[Recommended ReadingWhen Someone You Love Has Cancer, It’s Not About You].

One final point: don’t go MIA on your loved one because you don’t know how to deal with the vulnerability, fears, and other emotions you’re feeling.  Buck up and learn to deal with them (said with love). 

Going MIA is one of the worst things you can do.  It will forever negatively impact (maybe even ruin) your relationship.  Moreover, it’s better for you and your mental health to deal with these emotions instead of ignoring them.

How to Be a Friend to Someone With Cancer

You understand what your loved one(s) with cancer are going through (and how it’s affecting them) and you’re more self-aware about the thoughts and beliefs that might get in your way from providing the best care and support possible to them.  It’s time to find out what cancer patients need most from you.

What they need most is your love and support.  Your friendship.  Although that sounds simple, you probably have questions about how to do it.  Here are 8 tips on how to provide the support and friendship they need:

Be Natural and Real

When with them, talk to them as if they’re the same person they always were.  Your shared experiences haven’t gone anywhere.  And just because they have cancer doesn’t mean that you need to fill up quiet space (which is a common phenomenon).  Just be you and keep in mind who they are.

Acknowledge What They’re Dealing With

It’s okay (even good) to acknowledge what’s going on in their life.  It sucks and you hate that they’re going through this – you can actually say this to them.  Don’t ignore or pretend that things aren’t difficult or different.  That will make things more awkward.

Follow Their Lead

The cancer journey is a rocky path with numerous ups and downs.  There will be days when they’ll be sad, angry, and feeling miserable from treatment.  Yet there will also be days when they seem their normal, pre-cancer selves.  Follow their lead.  My best advice is to prepare yourself for how you want to be, not what you want to do or talk about.  That way, you’re mentally prepared for whatever may come and more open to following their lead.

Be Present

The #1 thing you can do for them is just to be present with them.  Although you should offer to help from time to time, some people have trouble asking for and accepting help.  If that’s your cancer patient, then just be there for them.  Often, opportunities to help in simple and small ways open up (and that’s when these folks are most likely to accept your help).

Remember (and Remind Them) That They’re Still Alive

Happiness isn’t about being positive all the time.  It’s about feeling content in your life – in that moment, no matter the circumstances.  And believe it or not, that’s possible when battling cancer too.  Help your loved one to live their lives while also taking into account:

Living doesn’t always mean going out on the town.  It’s about connecting with loved ones, being in the moment, and accepting whatever emotions and thoughts are there.

Remind Them that You’re Here for Them

Reach out to them on a regular basis to remind them that you’re there if they need you and are thinking of them.  The cancer treatment phase can be isolating – especially if their immune system has been damaged by treatment.

And don’t assume that they’ll reach out to you when they need you.  Most cancer patients feel like they’re burdening their friends and family members, so be sure to send them regular emails and texts of support and encouragement while also picking up the phone to chat occasionally.

Offer Specific Help

When offering to help, be specific.  You might believe that you don’t know what they need help with, but you’re wrong.  Take 10 minutes to consider what they’ll likely need help with while going through treatment.  Don’t just think about the cancer patient, but also consider their family and any pets.  What might get dropped when they’re not at full capacity?

Take Care of Yourself

Be aware of your own emotions, thoughts, and stress levels.  Supporting someone with cancer is rough, so don’t ignore it.  Have someone (not the patient) that you can talk with during this time.  Become aware of your thoughts and learn how to relieve and prevent stress.

3 Specific Ways to Help With What Cancer Patients Need Most From You

Now that you know what cancer patients need most from you, let’s get into some specific ideas on how to provide the support they need.

A quick note: don’t limit yourself to only the ideas below.  They’re intended to give you a jump-start on what to do and will hopefully spur additional ideas.  Whatever you choose to do, be sure it’s (1) truly helpful to the patient, and (2) something you feel comfortable doing.

What to Talk About + How to Be Present

When spending time with your loved one, remember that it’s not so much about what you say but about the fact that you’re there.  Here are some specific things you can do and say:

  • Talk about current events and ask for advice + opinions (just like you did before they had cancer).
  • Compliment them honestly (without being back-handed).  For example, say “The scarf you’re wearing brings out the blue in your eyes”, instead of “That scarf makes it less obvious that you’ve lost your hair.”
  • Ask a question about how they’re feeling/doing and listen.  Stay silent for as long as they fill the space and allow them to vent (they might need it).
  • Offer a hug and/or a pat on the shoulder or hand.
  • Set up a regular time to visit and/or chat on the phone (that they can easily change/cancel if not feeling up to it).
  • Play games, watch TV shows or movies, and/or do needlework (whatever they enjoy doing).
  • Offer to go on a short walk.

Note: there’s an appropriate time and place for these, so be sure to follow the patients lead and be flexible.

Reaching Out

Reach out regularly so that they feel loved and supported.  You can do this in many ways, such as:

  • Regularly text and/or email them with short notes.  Include cartoons, gifs, photos, and anything else that is intended to let them know you’re thinking about them (and doesn’t necessarily relate to their cancer).
  • Call regularly (I recommend once every week or two).  When ending your call, say that you’ll be in touch next week/in two weeks (whenever you plan to call).  And then be sure to calendar that so that you don’t forget.
  • Schedule regular, short visits.  Don’t go unannounced and be understanding if they need to cancel.
  • Tell them you’re bringing lunch or dinner and ask what they want you to bring for them.
  • Offer to take them to their regular appointments.  I had a friend who did this for me and we became even closer through this process.  It made my chemo days enjoyable and something I actually looked forward to.

Providing Help

Assume that they need help, even if they don’t admit it or hire someone to help them.  The fact is: they can always use some sort of help.  Also, don’t forget about family members and caregivers.  Providing support to a family member or caregiver is also helping the patient.

Here are some ideas for how to provide help to cancer patients and their caregivers:

  • Offer to run regular errands, such as dry-cleaning and grocery shopping.
  • Take their kids to and from school several times per week.
  • Offer to do household chores, such as gardening, mowing the lawn, or cleaning their home every other week.
  • Bring them dinner regularly (better yet: coordinate with others to have dinner delivered regularly).
  • Baby-sit when needed.
  • Take them out to dinner or to a movie (assuming they’d like that and can).
  • Coordinate with their caregiver to visit for a longer period of time that allows the caregiver to get away.

Use the ideas above to provide amazing support to your loved ones who are dealing with cancer.  You’ll find that they’ll appreciate it and that your relationship will become stronger for it.

Until next time…

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Hey there, I’m Heather

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I’m here to help purpose-driven lawyers and other professionals (like you) build your ideal career to support the life you actually want. Because you shouldn’t have to choose between professional success & personal happiness.

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