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4. How you can help your friend/ family

  • If you haven’t spoken to your family member/ friend since their diagnosis, directly approach the issue by saying something like, “I’m sorry to hear you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. How are you going?” Most people appreciate an honest acknowledgment of their situation, rather than ‘beating around the bush’.
  • Be aware that your relationship with the person with cancer may come under great stress during diagnosis and treatment (particularly if you’re their carer or close family member).
  • If you’re a friend, speak to the patient and their family about the role they would like you to play.
  • Continue with your usual communication. Many people worry that they won’t say the right thing to the patient, that they might upset them or that they should ‘be strong’ or hide negative emotions for their sake. Being honest about how you feel, asking the patient how they feel and being a good listener are in fact some of the most helpful things you can do. Simply talking about distress provides relief, so try not to change the subject, even if you feel a bit uncomfortable.
  • Be honest – don’t give unrealistic assurances or promise to do things that you can not realistically do.
  • Where possible, let the person with cancer continue with their usual routine, activities and previous roles as much as possible. They may be sensitive to others taking on tasks and responsibilities.
  • Continue to include the person with cancer in planning various aspects of family life and social activities by asking them for their advice –  they will probably still want to contribute.
  • Structure time out with the person with cancer when you ‘don’t do sickness’. It is important to spend time together that is not illness-related (e.g. watching a movie).
  • Be open to a sense of humour.
  • Remember the person with cancer will probably be worried about how their diagnosis is affecting you too. If you’re seeing a professional such as a counsellor, state this honestly. This may come as a relief to the person with cancer and make it easier for them to do the same.
  • Offer to go along to appointments (check-ups, tests and treatment).
  • Prepare food and drink to encourage eating, but be aware that treatment often changes taste and appetite.
  • Make a list of all health professionals’ names and contact details. Place it in a prominent position for easy access (e.g. near the phone), so that anyone can access it if you’re not there.
  • As a friend, help create opportunities for the carer to have a break, e.g. offering to sit with the person with cancer for a few hours to enable the carer to go out and do something for themselves.
  • Try not to be too offended if the person with cancer does not seem to appreciate all that you’re doing. It’s common for carers to feel like a ‘punching bag’.
  • Try to encourage a return to a normal routine as soon as possible.
  • When treatment is complete, it may be helpful to have advice on how to carry out the caring tasks from a community nurse on a home visit.  An Occupational Therapist may also be able to help you make changes to home, or provide special equipment to make things easier (e.g. handrails). Your GP or community health team will be able to advise and provide more information about accessibility.
  • Offer to help with tasks such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, shopping or gardening, driving to appointments, picking up children from school, looking up information, filling out forms, sorting out legal or financial issues, keeping others updated, accompanying them on a walk. If the person needs to travel for treatment, making them meals that can be frozen and taken with them may be particularly useful. When offering to help, be clear about exactly what you can do and when.
  • Be careful about offering advice and telling stories about other people who have experienced cancer. They are not always helpful or appreciated.