When a Loved One is Diagnosed with Cancer

Whether it is your long-time spouse or an aging parent, the impact of a cancer diagnoses is felt throughout the entire web of relationships that surround us. Even in recent films from The Judge and The Fault in Our Stars, to Wish I Was Here and 50/50, we’ve seen more and more candid images of the dynamics of families living with and fighting cancer. In the wave of the fear, logistics, and information, figuring out how to take the next steps and help a friend or loved one through their journey can be difficult. What is the right thing to say? What should I be doing to help? While you may feel the deep reality that you can’t do anything to impact the diagnosis, there are plenty of things you can do to impact the way a person copes with their diagnosis and lives their life. Here are 10 tips to help you stay present to your loved one, plan for the future, and get the help you and your loved one deserve in their time of need:

1. Define Needed Support: Family and friends are the first to want to jump in and show their support and each person will have a different idea of what that looks like. It can be difficult to find the right balance of respecting boundaries and privacy while demonstrating solidarity. Make a list of small errands and needs that would be helpful for the individual and the family. When others ask what they can do, this list can stand in for the automatic response of, “oh, we’re okay.” Asking for even a small favor can be a real gift for those that want to do something to help. 

2. Communications Coordinator: Many people want to express their support and thoughts throughout the journey and stay up-to-date on how things are going. This flow of communication can be a source of incredible encouragement, but it can also be overwhelming to tell your story repeatedly. In the digital age, starting a blog can be a great way to help manage the communications between family and friends spread out around the country. Having a family member create a space that is dedicated to updating family and acting as a repository for well-wishes can be a great way to consolidate support into one location for your loved one. Time and energy are at a premium when undergoing treatment and family can take a leading role in managing the communications.

3. Long-Term Care: When asked, most people would rather receive care and recover in the comfort of their own home, but this can present some challenges for family caregivers when you have a chronic illness such as cancer. Long-Term Care simply refers to care that is received in the home to help with daily activities of living that continues on for more than a few weeks. Helping a loved one find and get the right care and support in the home can really shape their recovery process and create a positive and peaceful space for the whole family to heal.

4. Healthcare Secretary: When entering the healthcare world one of the most common experiences is being overwhelmed with information. From medications and treatments to dietary changes and appointments, there is a lot to capture and incorporate into daily routines. Acting as a second pair of ears, taking detailed notes during doctor appointments, and coordinating a healthcare calendar can be a real gift for an individual with a chronic illness. Organization and support dramatically impact the continuity of their care. 

5. Family Meeting: Every family is different, but the one thing we all have in common is that we have our own dynamics. While communication between some family members may be more difficult than others, try and have an open and honest dialogue and welcome questions about the cancer, care, and future plans. While it might seem counter-intuitive, opening up the communication lines and talking about the experience and its impact on the family can actually help drain out some of the fear and create a safe space for tensions to rise and fall.

6. Setting Expectations: We all have a “crisis mode” that we can jump into when something happens to a loved one, but living in that mode long-term is just not sustainable and actually puts caregivers at greater emotional and physical risk for burn out. Set expectations with yourself and your loved ones and be candid about what you are capable of doing and where you need help. Just because you aren’t the one with cancer doesn’t mean that you don’t have needs too.  

7. The Courage to Tell Stories: If StoryCorps has taught us anything it is the power of human connection that occurs when one person tells something true about their life to another person. Stories can be a healing balm, a source of humor, and a line of connection after a cancer diagnosis. They can also help a person remember that they are not their diagnosis and connect to their life outside of the disease. Invite family over to record a story night or have far-away friends write a letter telling a favorite story involving your loved one.

8. Paperwork: It often takes a crisis to get us to think about the possibility of our own death. Regardless of the prognosis, a diagnosis with cancer can be a great wake-up call to get your Advance Directives, medical, and other legal paperwork in order. If you were unable to speak for yourself who would speak for you and what would you want? When it comes to documenting your wishes, many people associate the task with death, but it is really more about speaking on your behalf and shaping the life you want if/when care is needed.

9. Lifestyle Support: When undergoing treatment for cancer, fatigue is a very real concern when trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you didn’t feel like getting out for that 30 minute walk before, you really won’t feel like it now. Gather a select group of friends or family to provide a buddy system for doing activities that will support your body as it heals. This might include a walking buddy, or a group of friends that plan and make healthy meals together for the week. Make sure that you are surrounding yourself with positive people that are making deposits into your energy bank and not just withdrawing from your limited energy reserves.

10. Find Others on the Journey: While family and friends can be a great source of care and support there is nothing quite like talking to someone who has been on or is currently on the same journey and facing the same challenges. Connecting with other cancer patients or family of survivors might come in the form of a support group, but it might also come in the form of participating with a cancer organization, or engaging with blogs and memoirs on the topic. Find the words of others that remind you, you’re not alone.   

Published on February 13, 2015.