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Great ways to support someone with cancer - Gift and Companionship

When friends and loved ones get sick with cancer many wonder ways in which they can help and support them. Here we will discuss a variety of different ways.

What is okay to say?

At first you may feel unsure about what’s appropriate to say, being understanding and sensitive to how they feel is what most people want. Knowing you’re there by their side will really help.

Every person’s experience with cancer is different, so try not to assume you know how the person’s thinking. They may be happy and accepting of it one day and devastated the next. Try to be understanding of their mood.

Remember that they might not want to talk or think about their cancer all of the time. Having a normal conversation about everyday things and sharing a joke can sometimes be very welcome.

Try not to take it personally if they don’t want to talk about their cancer and respect their need for privacy or to have some quiet time

This video has tips from people with cancer about talking to someone with cancer. It lasts for 54 seconds.

The emotions they might feel

You might discover that their feelings change from one moment to the next. This is a common response to a cancer diagnosis. There's a whole list of emotions that they could experience such as:

anger

sadness

uncertainty

fear

guilt

frustration

loneliness

isolation

resentment

grief

Having an understanding of these feelings can assist you in understanding them.

Chia's Silver Lining has a section all about cancer and feelings, which you may need to look at.

Cancer and emotions

Emotional support

Studies have shown that emotional support from friends and family can make a huge difference to the handling of the trauma someone with cancer experiences.

People are often worried about saying something offensive to someone with cancer. If you're open, honest and show your concern then you'll provide great support. Here's some advice that will help:

Do:

Let them know if you feel awkward – it affirms the situation as opposed to pretending it’s not occurring.

Give them a big hand squeeze or a long warm hug – it can go very far.

Call them up, send a post card, letter or text message to say you’re thinking about them.

Let them know that if they want to chat you're there to listen - then follow through on it if they ever need to talk.

Respect any need or requests for privacy.

Offer  your support through the entire diagnosis - at the start, in the middle and at the end of treatment.

Share a laugh or joke with them if this seems appropriate.

Keep your friendship as balanced and as normal as possible.

Try to avoid:

Say you know understand they feel – you can’t ever know precisely how specifically someone with cancer feels. Even if you've had it!

Remind them to ‘be strong’ or ‘be positive’ – it may be pressuring them to feel a way they don't, and this can ADD stress.

Take things personal if they appear agitated or upset or don’t want to socialize.

Offer tips that they didn't ask for.

Compare their story  to somebody else you've had contact with, as each person’s experience with cancer is different.

Listen Intently

A good listener attempts to become aware of someone’s feelings and thoughts as deep as they can. You don’t need to know all the answers. Just listening to your friend’s concerns or worries can be very useful.

A person who's good at listening tries to really tune in and listen in the moment. Listening is a huge part of giving emotional support.

Here are some tips on how to listen well.

Try to keep the environment private, calm and with limited distractions.

Maintain eye contact but not for too long.

Let the cancer patient lead the conversation and avoid interrupting.

Listen to what they're saying as best you can.

If you're finding the subject matter difficult to discuss, don't change the subject – say how you're feeling, this will help prevent any awkward interactions.

If they're crying, don’t attempt to cheer them up. Assure them that it’s OK to be upset and that it’s a reasonable response to what’s occurring with them.

A polite touch of the hands can helpful but if they push away give them privacy.

Avoid giving advice unless they've asked for it.

Avoid humor unless they used it themselves.

Silences are good, don’t feel like you need to fill dead air with words.

Practical support

As well as supporting someone emotionally it can help to offer practical support too.

Check in with your loved one or friend every once in a wile and find out if there's something they need.

Some might not want help or feel guilty accepting it. They may try to be as independent as they can be. Don't take this personal. Respect their choice but let them know you're there if they need you. 

You could offer any additional help in the future, or take turns with your other friends in assisting them so they have someone at all times when needed. Make sure you're able to commit any time you've offered. 

Here are some practical ideas:

Make meals they can freeze.

Offer to do some lawn work.

Drive them to their doctor's appointments.

Help with cleaning or laundry.

Walk or take care of their pets.

Offer to do any shopping.

Return, pick up or pick out library books. 

Offer to take kids to and from school. 

Bring them lunch and stay for chatting. 

Take care of any errands they might need help with.

Always ask before you visit, in case they aren't feeling well. 

Summary

After learning that a friend, acquaintance, or colleague has cancer, you may wonder what is the best approach. You may wish to help in some way or consider stopping by to visit or sending a gift. Or you may want to do something but be at a loss at what to do or say.

We spoke with Memorial Sloan Kettering social workers Meredith Cammarata and Liz Blackler to get their advice on how to support someone with cancer. Here’s what we discovered.

Ask before you see them.

This is true whether you’re visiting at their home or at the hospital. “Being sick is unpredictable,” says Cammarata. “Give your friend permission to say no to a visit, and be flexible and understanding that someone who is sick may call and cancel at the last minute.” If you reached out and your friend didn't get back to you, don't take it personal

If you do visit, be careful not to overstay your welcome — your friend may feel obligated to entertain you. If you’re not sure how long to stay, she says, just ask: “I can stay longer. Or do you want me to leave and come back another time?”

Set up a phone team.

People with cancer often find that keeping people updated with what's going on can be taxing. Cammarata suggests setting up a phone team, this way only one person on a weekly or whatever you set up basis reaches out and informs the others. This person can also let other friends know if the patient wants additional phone calls or companionship or would rather be left alone.  

Offer to help with daily tasks.

It may be hard for your friend to request help, but Cammarata and Blackler say that some of the best things you can do are to offer help with common errands, like food shopping, babysitting kids or pets, picking kids up from school, or doing household chores. Cammarata suggests making a task list you’re willing to do and asking friends where you can be of assistance.

If you’re going to the store for yourself, contact your friend and see if there’s something else you can pick up, Blackler says.

Listen.

“The most meaningful and helpful things are little…like listening,” notes Cammarata. If you're not sure what to say, it's fine to say that, too. 

“It’s OK to say you’re feeling awkward,” says Blackler. “It’s OK to say, ‘This is so hard. I don’t know what to say.’” It's a great way to acknowledge the situation rather than acting like it isn't happening. 

Take your cues from your friend.

Similarly, look to your friend for ideas on what to discuss. “Sometimes patients express frustration because their friends don’t want to talk about the cancer. People get frustrated because it’s a big part of their life,” Blackler says. However, sometimes it's better to not talk about such a stressful subject.

If you’re not sure, Blackler suggests saying something like, “Do you want to talk about it? If so, I’m here. If you don’t, let’s get lunch and talk about the gossip in the neighborhood.”

Remember that everyone’s illness is different.

Even if your friend's cancer diagnosis is the same as say yours or a close friend or relative, understand their experience is different. It may be tempting to find companionship by comparison, Cammarata recommends avoiding this approach.

“Don’t say, ‘My friend was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, too, and they’re doing great,’” she says. It’s not helpful to compare illnesses.

Reconsider gifts of food.

Perhaps you’ve thought about baking a casserole, soup, or another meal. Understand that your friend may have to stick to a certain diet during treatment, and have symptoms like vomiting and stomach pains, or be prone to infections, says Cammarata. Depending on the situation, you may want to avoid food entirely.

Give thoughtful gifts.

Gifts can be tricky for a variety of reasons. Flowers may be bad for someone with a weak immune system. Gifts with a strong odor like perfume can be overwhelming to some patients undergoing treatment. Books, puzzles, movies, or magazine may be a great escape for someone undergoing treatment.

Blackler recalls a cancer patient that received a gift card for a home cleaning service. This was particularly nice as the patient wasn't comfortable with people going into her home. 

Cammarata remembers a particularly thoughtful gift. The patients friends made sort of a scrapbook of memories and photographs the patient and their friends experienced with one another. I found this to be a particularly thoughtful gift. 

Support caregivers and other family members too.

“People are so focused on the patients and how they’re doing that they forget to ask caregivers how they’re doing,” Blackler says. “Caregivers are stressed out.” They’re trying to juggle their existing roles and take over new responsibilities that the person who’s sick used to do.

You can offer to help by babysitting the kids for a night or driving them to soccer practice. Or perhaps helping out just means sitting in the hospital room while the caregiver steps out for a cup of coffee.

Continue to offer support after the initial diagnosis.

“It’s not always at the beginning of the illness that patients need support. They need support along the entire continuum,” says Cammarata. Offers of help often “flood in at the beginning of the diagnosis and then it begins to trickle,” she adds. “It’s important to remember that the help is not just needed when they’re first diagnosed or in the hospital.”

If you’re part of a church group or a similar organization, your group might want to consider taking turns helping out so that the support is spread out. Blackler also advises to offer to help more than once — but not too frequently. Ask again in a week or two.

Most importantly, keep the person in mind throughout it all. Think about his or her personality and comfort level, likes and dislikes, and needs.

“It’s about helping without overwhelming,” Blackler says. “People can do really amazing things that touch the lives of patients.”