For Supporters: What to Say and Do
What to Say and Do as a Supporter of Someone Who Has Been Diagnosed with Cancer
This post is a reference for you, as a supporter of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
What should you say and do when you hear this devastating news? How do you reach out?
If you are panicking and worried about the ‘right’ thing to say, or frantically thinking of things you can do to help, then read on for a guide which should help you navigate this difficult time.
You can also read a reference page for fast and easy tips to use in the immediate moments after hearing news of diagnosis.
How you turn up for someone during this time in their lives is so much more important than anything you gift. You don’t have to send expensive flowers, although I’m sure they would be appreciated! Your active support and presence are the best gifts you can give. Time is the most precious resource we all have, so gifting your time is the ultimate gift to anyone, ever. Anything else, is an added welcome bonus.
What Do I Say?
All you have to say is, something.
The fact that you are saying something is the most important thing. Just reaching out and letting them know you are there for them, is all they really need right now.
I know how hard it can be to find the right words sometimes, and how that can prevent you from reaching out. So, here are some tips on how to talk with someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
- Actively listen. Acknowledge their emotions. Help them feel heard and understood. Withhold all judgement. They may not seem like ‘themselves’ anymore. This is normal. While they are going through the trauma of diagnosis and treatment and even for a time afterward, they will be experiencing a wide array of emotions and going through physical, mental, and psychological battles. Keep in mind that they will also likely be affected by the medications they are on such as steroids, as well as experiencing other side effects such as lack of sleep, nausea, headaches etc.
- Offering constructive support is so important. People can feel overwhelmed after diagnosis and during treatment. They will be exhausted and may not know themselves what they want or need. Making specific offers of help can help navigate this, try using language such as ‘I can do…’ or ‘I will…’. This is a clear demonstration of concrete things you are offering to help them with, and it makes it easier for them to hear and accept. Just remember not to be too pushy.
- Try not to project your emotions, e.g., fear or sadness. Just acknowledge their emotions for now. Your feelings are very valid too but try to discuss them with other people. Seek support for yourself. Supporting someone through cancer is tough and you need an outlet too. Put your own mask on first! Support yourself to support them.
- Consider reaching out to their immediate support system, i.e., their spouse/partner, their parents, their other close friends. You can support each other.
- Don’t force positivity on them. There’s nothing worse than being told to look on the bright side at moments like this. All you need to say is “I am so sorry that this is happening to you”. Just offer your empathy and support.
- Side effects such as hair loss can be daunting. Try not to minimise their concerns over these things or force a positive message on them. Hear their concerns and acknowledge their experience. Try offering constructive support such as offering to help make phone calls to hairdressers, wig suppliers etc.
- Try to remember that general responses to your questions on their wellbeing, such as ‘I’m fine/grand/ok’ aren’t always true. It’s safe to assume that they are not doing well but maybe don’t have the energy or inclination to talk about it in depth right now. Always respect that but reinforce your support so they know you are there for them when they need it. Keep checking in. You can use sign offs to your messages such as ‘no need to write back, just checking in to remind you that I love you and am thinking of you.’ If you sense that they are struggling, increase your communication efforts and consider checking in with their immediate support circle.
What Can I Do?
- Be present for them.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. During lockdown or if they have to cocoon - send a text, make a phone call, send a card.
- Try not to take their silences personally - if someone does not reply to a message or answer a phone call, send them a message letting them know that you are just thinking of them. Don't give up - keep sending little messages of support and love. As they battle through their darkest days, they will feel your support and encouragement and it will make all the difference.
- Offer to be their walking companions. It’s important that they get out into the fresh air and get gentle exercise. You can help encourage them with this by turning up to walk with them.
- If they are cocooning, you can do drive by visits. You can wave at them, socially distant from the driveway or corridor. Or have chats through a window or from a balcony.
- If you are making a home cooked family meal, increase the quantities and set some aside that they can eat straight away or freeze for later.
- Offer to pick up their grocery shopping. Or just pick up some staples such as sparkling water, grapes, ginger tea, or pineapple and just drop them over unasked.
- Pick up prescriptions from the pharmacy for them.
- If they have children, offer to help by doing school runs or organising play dates. Or babysitting during appointments.
- If they’re not cocooning, you could clean their house for them while they are at an appointment. You don’t have to clean the whole house, but you could do a quick vacuum and mop the kitchen floor or clean the bathrooms.
- Do some gardening for them. If you can’t get to the back of the house, you could mow the front garden, or do some weeding. You could water plants, trim the hedge. You could even put in a window box or some hanging baskets to brighten it up for them.
- If you’ve been vaccinated, you could offer to drive them to their appointments, perhaps even accompany them if it’s allowed.
- You could offer to make phone calls or send text messages with updates to groups of people.
- Don’t forget pets! You can offer to walk their dog/s. If they are tired, then they probably can’t give their dog/s the amount of exercise they need or are used to.
- It’s important that they stay active and engaged, so if they had hobbies before diagnosis, try and encourage them to keep these up by offering to get involved too. If they can no longer do particular hobbies, then encourage new ones such as taking up art or gardening.
- Cancer is expensive. There are all sorts of added expenses. You can help ease financial stress by setting up a parking fund for their hospital visits, giving them vouchers for grocery shops such as Tesco or SuperValu or Dunnes. Or you could buy them subscriptions to things such as Netflix or Spotify or magazines.
- Set up reminders for yourself to check in regularly. Put their big appointment dates in your calendar so you remember to message or call them.
- Also try to remember to check in with their immediate circle who may need support themselves. You could offer to do a lot of the above for them too, e.g., go for walks, give them time off, do some cooking or cleaning so they don’t have to etc.
Whatever you do or say, remember to be flexible to their schedule, mood and needs.
Consider setting up a supporter’s club for them. If there is a group of family members or friends, set up a schedule of tasks and assign volunteers every week to help out. I’ve designed a weekly planner you can use for this and if you're a subscriber you will be given this as a free downloadable resource.
Example of The UpLift Kit Support-Tip Kit Support Plan Resource
It can be hard to support someone through their cancer journey. But try to remember that there are dark days they will have to battle, this is their journey.
In recent times it has been even harder to support loved ones, but we can still connect and support each other in different ways.
Support and Uplift them!
As a supporter, there are resources out there for you too.
Consider listening to or reading Brené Brown. She speaks on the topic of not knowing what to say and procrastination. We're all familiar with this concept because we've all been there. There is no right thing to say. It is never too late to reach out. But it is better if you can reach out honestly without fear of not knowing the right thing to say. You can always start with "I don't know what to say".
Listen and subscribe to The Answers for Cancers Podcast. This podcast is run by two Irish oncology nurses from the Mater, and it is an excellent resource for everyone going through the cancer journey. Their episodes are extremely informative and helpful at breaking down cancer.
Consider counselling for yourself. Especially if you are a close supporter. Don't be afraid to seek help for yourself. You can turn up for them, by turning up for yourself first.
Cancer is hard for everyone to navigate. But it can be easier when we navigate it together.