The moment a person gets diagnosed with cancer, it feels like time stops. But after it sets in, and a painful wait for answers, there’s a solid action plan. They are handed their schedule for the coming months with a barrage of appointments and a treatment plan with dates to guide them through the process. Their mental countdown begins. The patient immediately goes from out-of-body into action mode, focused on a date on the horizon. They get a brand new support system that’s focused on their health. They set out on a journey that you likely can’t relate to. Their initial shock and helplessness evolves into a punch list of what needs to be done to survive, distracting their anxious mind with some form of relief by doing something about it.
So what happens to those on the sidelines? The husbands and wives, the sisters and best friends, the brothers and neighbors? We struggle to find our place and figure out how to help. We may feel like we aren’t useful, or that our offers of help aren’t heard. We may feel too afraid to say anything in fear of saying the wrong thing. We may be panicked and scared but bury those feelings because the patient is going through so much more than us. We want to be there, but not feel “in the way.” We want to help but feel that little details like picking up a dinner or driving to an appointment or a positive text message is never enough. It’s hard not to feel clumsy when all you want to do is fix something but can’t.
There’s a different set of challenges for the loved ones of cancer patients. You may feel guilt for being healthy. You may feel angry that this happened. You may want to press for more answers or give advice but it comes off pushy or out of touch. You may be confused about where your place is in this person’s new reality. You may get consumed with anxiety about the process or even the patient’s choices. You ride the emotional rollercoaster of cancer, but it’s not your ride.
2019 was when I first understood this feeling. My perfectly healthy and vibrant friend was diagnosed with stage 4 Glioblastoma brain cancer, which typically means a slim chance of survival. Her children were 4 and 7. Two months later my younger sister was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer that was spreading quickly, which was only caught because she kept advocating for herself. Her children were 1, 3 and 5.
The three of us had lived together, worked together, and played together for years. And now they were struggling to live, keep their families together, and stay sane and positive through grueling treatment plans. How did this happen? They’re so young and healthy. Good people. Mothers. Why did this happen to them and not me? (I'm sure you can relate!)
Okay. Now what can I do?
I wanted to spring into action to get some semblance of control over a very out-of-control situation. I wanted to swoop in and do some grandiose thing to show how much I cared – but there really weren’t any ways to make a giant impact. I wanted to help but there were no instructions, and the situation is delicate and varies person to person, cancer to cancer, relationship to relationship.
Of course, the last thing you want to do is project any negative energy onto the patient, so you likely bury your anxiety and put on a positive, helpful face. You may constantly feel like you’re falling short and that no one is doing enough – even the doctors.
If you are here - you are not alone!
For every person with cancer, there are many people in their lives who desperately want to fix it but can’t. We can see changes in them and not know how to support this “new” person. We may want to be positive, but don’t want to come off as tone-deaf during a tough period in their lives. But rest assured, there are a few things you can do that are in the best interest of the patient, and heal your own raw emotions along the way. Here are some ideas for what to do when someone you love has cancer:
- Ask yourself: “How do I want to show up?” and back into that. A person with cancer oftentimes has their life laid bare in front of them. Superficial relationships become evident very quickly. They see people for who they truly are – and they remember it. So as you embark on this journey with your loved one, ask “who do I want to be for them?” when the chips are down (because it’s going to get hard). Do you want to be the person who cries with them? The steadfast companion who’s there for what they need in the moment? The listening ear on the phone miles away? Or the operational wizard who keeps the trains moving? You know your loved one best and what they need – now align it with your gifts and your unique relationship and come up with an actionable plan of how you will show up. Even if it feels small or compartmentalized, that’s okay. There’s plenty of room for everyone to help, so take cues from the patient and their family. Take a deep breath, reflect on their needs, and focus on how you are being uniquely called to help. Now do that to the best of your abilities.
- Be normal. How can I possibly be normal?! you may think. But all that your loved one with cancer is craving is likely some normalcy and reliability. Don’t overthink it: what was your relationship always based on? Keep doing that. It’s familiar and comfortable to them. Treating them like a sick person, suddenly jumping in over-the-top, or giving them too much space may not be the status quo of your relationship. Whether you’ve always shared funny memes, dished on the latest celebrity gossip, met for coffee, or had deep conversations – keep it going. Show them that you still see them, not cancer. Be a safe, familiar harbor for them to talk when they want to, laugh when they want to, and vent when they need to. Brighten their day by reminding them what hasn’t changed.
- Be upfront. Feeling lost and don’t know what to do? Just tell them! No, you don’t need to unload, but just admit “I can’t figure out what you need and I’m feeling clumsy. How can I help? What can I do?” They are likely to be thrilled that someone is being honest. Remember that they have been forced to become a more vulnerable person, hopefully they’ll tell you exactly what they need. Even if they simply ask for help with getting a kid to after-school activities or a walk once a week– when they tell you what they need, believe them. Be there for all things, big or small.
- Be practical and spend wisely. I remember walking through my sister’s kitchen a month into her treatment and feeling like I was in a flower shop. My friend Shenell joked she felt like she was at her own funeral with all of the flowers in her home. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for beautiful blooms, but someone with cancer doesn’t necessarily need two dozen $100 bouquets. Again – ask what they need. It may be gift cards for groceries and gas if they’re worried about medical bills. It could be a family dinner Doordashed to them on a Thursday. It could be well thought-out items to help them through their cancer treatment. They are exhausted, so be a finder of helpful information! About zero information about how to make their treatment easier on their body and spirit is given to the patient during their cancer journey. Ask around and do your research on what could be making your loved one’s journey a bit more tolerable. The Do Cancer Healing Kits are curated by cancer survivors with proven resources that worked for them. They can make a big impact on your loved one’s mood, health, and even the effectiveness of their treatment. And – it’s original! Think nutritious supplements, teas to help with chemo constipation, great books written by survivors who get it, healthy snacks, comforting clothing, and maybe even a gift card to a great cancer therapist. Make it easy and meaningful! Shop here for some ideas.
- Be consistent. The news of cancer runs through people’s social circles like wildfire. Most of the time, the messages of care and concern, the prayers, the flowers, and the check-ins peak early in the patient’s cancer treatment. Most people in the patient’s sphere are genuinely concerned, but outreach seems to taper off rather quickly. Be a person who consistently cares – and show it. Just because it’s month six of chemo and it's a slog doesn’t mean the patient still doesn’t need all hands on deck figuratively and literally. That person is still suffering with uncertainty and now - fatigue over the whole thing. Their body, mind and spirit is tired – and the involvement of friends and family from the early days may be waning. That can be even more isolating for them. When you make a commitment to be there for them, commit to keep it going. Be there from start to finish. Even when the patient is sick of talking about their blood cell counts, or celebrating the mini victories, be the person there seeing them - asking the questions and checking off each milestone. If they unexpectedly have to add weeks of treatment or go back in for surgery – be there. Cancer changes, treatment changes, moods change, marriages change, relationships and mental states change – be there for your loved one through it all. Most aren’t. Be a consistent force.
- Get okay with one-way communication. Of course you know it’s not about you, but it can be hard when someone who is integral to your life is suddenly on a solo journey. The patient is so overwhelmed with what is happening to them, managing lots of meds and appointments, and not feeling so hot. They will not have the energy to connect like they used to. They’re also getting pretty tired of repeating their medical updates over and over to more and more people. Don’t let it deter you from reaching out! Even if it’s one-way communication, send that funny update or link to something comfortable you know they’d love. It lets them know you’re thinking of them, always. Apps that let them respond on their own timetable like Marco Polo or even mobile voice memos are great ways to hear a familiar, caring voice without having to engage in a live conversation or a long, back-and-forth text chain. Don’t be offended if they don’t respond – there’s just a lot going on in their world. Realize it’s not personal if they don’t engage every time or even a few days pass after they got your amazing gift or book. They know you love them. They’re just in the thick of it.
- Talk to someone – and each other! Admitting you feel lonely and scared when a loved one has cancer is not selfish at all – it’s honest. If keeping it together and being strong for them in person (but crumbling behind the scenes) is catching up with you, talk to someone. If you’re okay with therapy, there are great in-person and virtual professionals who specialize in dealing with cancer. If that's not your thing, talk to the other loved ones in the patient’s circle. Reach out to the spouse, siblings, and other friends – you’re likely all feeling a bit lonely and can relate to each other. This was my biggest “miss” during my loved ones’ cancer journeys. I wish I spent more time talking to the spouses, siblings, and children and making them feel heard and helping with their needs. Check in on the often-forgotten support and caregivers in the patient’s life. Arrange things together like a coffee, long walk, and discuss your fears together, or how you can share responsibilities like grocery delivery or driving to chemo appointments. Action feels good. Lean on each other – cancer impacts everyone! Don’t go it alone and don’t forget those who are bearing the brunt.
- Get involved. If you’ve done all you can and are still feeling ancy about what else you can do, get involved with a cause. Put that nervous energy and can-do spirit to work – it will mean a lot to your loved one. Volunteer at a cancer center, participate in a fundraiser, donate to families in need fighting cancer – zoom out and help the greater cause. Struggling to find the time? Send an anonymous Cancer Healing Kit or donate to an organization that covers basic expenses for those struggling financially during cancer. Give your time and resources from the heart to honor your loved one’s fight. They will feel and appreciate your generosity and you’ll be making a broader impact.
- Use the experience wisely. Watching something shocking happen to someone you love is a major wakeup call. Remember that you cannot truly help others unless you are in prime condition physically and emotionally. Find the positive in a messy situation. Start by impacting your own health and make good choices for a happy life. For me during this process, it meant extreme focus: shedding unnecessary noise from my life (like saying "yes" to everything, zoning out to social media, working too much), getting outside more, giving up alcohol, and cutting down on caffeine. Not only did I want to be in prime form mentally, physically, and emotionally for my loved ones and their families, I didn’t want to dull or numb myself during this critical time – I wanted to understand it, process it, and learn from it while helping them in every way I could. Prioritize your own health! Schedule that mammogram, colonoscopy, blood workup, or prostate exam. Everyone is different and you must do what works best for you, but really use this opportunity to look inward, make the changes you know you should be making, and honor your loved one’s hardship by doing all you can to adopt an anti-cancer lifestyle. You’ll feel better, you’ll be more present, and you will have the space to care more genuinely and deeply.
Watching someone you love fight cancer from the sidelines may be one of the hardest things you do – but trust the process. Cancer survival rates are improving dramatically, and there’s never been more medical advances and expertise. Let the medical professionals kill the cancer cells, while you build up the individual you love emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Stay in-tune with what they need, your own needs, and share a positive mindset together. They need you. You can help them Do Cancer!