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Supporting someone with cancer

As a friend or relative of someone with cancer, there's a lot you can do to help. Here we look at the ways to provide practical support and how to ensure you look after yourself, so you can be there when needed most.

Learn to listen
To a person with cancer, it's often not what you say but how you listen that matters most.

Having cancer can give rise to a whole range of strong emotions - shock, fear, anger, bitterness, uncertainty, confusion and depression. All too easily, people with cancer can feel vulnerable and isolated. Talking about fears can help to reduce anxiety.

You can help by encouraging the person to talk and by acknowledging the unpleasantness of some of their feelings. Not all of us are born counsellors, but if you're a good listener you can show them that you accept how they feel, which in turn may make them more comfortable about talking openly.

Getting a conversation going may sometimes be difficult, but you might find the following tips useful:

  • Give clues that you're not hurrying off - sit down and take your coat off
  • Get on the same level as the person you're talking to and don't sit too far away
  • If you're not sure whether the person wants to talk, ask them
  • Don't be offended if they don't want to talk

Once the conversation is under way, help the other person say what's on their mind by:

  • Listening to what they're saying rather than thinking about what you're going to say next
  • Encouraging them by saying things such as "Yes" and "I see" as they talk, or holding their hand if they're obviously thinking about something painful
  • Showing you're listening by picking up on things they've said
  • Being honest and not afraid of describing your own feelings
  • Allowing silences and not filling them with words for the sake of it
  • Not changing the subject, even if you find some of the things being said difficult
  • Not interrupting or blocking their flow by saying things such as "You'll be all right" or "Don't worry"
  • Not forcing your advice on the other person - try presenting your suggestions as questions, such as "Have you ever thought about...?"

Practical help
Many people find the more they know about cancer and the help available, the better equipped they feel to cope.

Cancer organisations and health professionals should be aware that families and carers have information needs, and will help you find out what you need to know.

The person with cancer may want such information passed on to them, but you should wait to be asked and don't assume they need the same information as you. They need to be encouraged to get through their treatment, not overwhelmed with conflicting advice. Ensure any information you do provide is accurate and relevant.

Ask the doctor
'My father has bone cancer. What can we do to relieve the pain?'
'My husband is having chemotherapy. What can I do to improve his appetite?'

Some people find it easier to give practical help rather than emotional support, but it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some suggestions:

  • Offer to help - if you're not a member of the immediate family, find out if your help is needed.
  • Assess what the person needs most - ask yourself what they will and won't be able to do for themselves. For example: "Can she prepare her own meals?",
  • "Do the children need to be taken to and from school?"
  • Decide which of these jobs you can do - for example, you may be a terrible cook, but have a car and could take the children to school.
  • Start with small practical things - from the list of things you can do, offer one or two. Remember that sometimes it's the small thoughtful offers that mean most,
  • Such as offering to tend the garden. Large gifts can overwhelm and embarrass people.
  • You can always offer to visit - spending regular time with your friend or relative and being reliable could be the most valuable way you can help.

Look after yourself
The last thing a person with cancer needs is for those close to them to become ill, so you have a responsibility to look after yourself. That means being fair to yourself and recognising your own limitations. Recognise what you can't do and don't feel guilty about it - get other people to help too.

Most cancer organisations provide support for close family and friends. Local branches of self-help groups are particularly suited to giving personalised support. Some health professionals, such as Macmillan nurses, specialise in offering support to the whole family from diagnosis onwards.

Using such outsiders can provide you with:

practical and possibly financial help and/or advice
someone professional to talk to, who might help get things into perspective

You should also try to keep physically healthy by getting plenty of rest and eating properly. This may not be easy, especially if you're looking after someone who needs a lot of care. But remember there are organisations that can give you a break or help with nursing.

Tips for looking after yourself:
keep your own health appointments and make sure you tell your doctor if you're caring for someone with cancer
eat well - at least one proper meal a day
if you feel unwell, get some extra rest and don't put off seeing your doctor
don't hesitate to turn to others for help
get a good night's sleep, if possible
keep up regular gentle exercise - it can be relaxing and give you more energy
make time for yourself every day
share your feelings - a local carers' group may help
keep your social life going if you can - at least by phoning people
recognise the signs of stress - headaches, insomnia, digestive problems, constant colds
try relaxation techniques - ask your family doctor for advice

Further information
Remember to ask doctors and nurses for advice if you're unsure of what to do to help. You might want to ask about the services provided by counsellors and Macmillan nurses.

Social workers, who can be contacted through the hospital where your relative or friend is being treated, can help organise services at home, applying for grants, and providing emotional support.

For more information about people and organisations who can provide practical, emotional and financial support, see Support for you, Emotional help, Financial help and Useful contacts.

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