How can I help someone with cancer?

What can I do?

When someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer, you may think what he or she’ll want is a soul-baring heart-to-heart. It’s true: being there ‘just to listen’ can help; but, much like having a baby, it’s often help with the logistics that’s more useful.

  • Ask what you can do to help — Is there anything they need, housework you could do or anyone you can call on their behalf?
  • Listen — If you feel able to listen to their fears and sorrows, let them know you’re there for them. Try not to offer platitudes, empty reassurance or stories of miraculous recovery; most people find it helpful just to have a listening ear.
  • Talk — Sometimes about what’s going on, sometimes about life in general. Be open to the fact your best efforts may not seem to be appreciated — the person you’re helping will have a lot on their mind, so don’t take it personally.
  • Care — Raw vegetables and dips can be a refreshing change from the monotony of hospital food, and freshly pressed fruit juice with ginger can help relieve nausea from chemotherapy. Healthy, home-cooked food can be nourishing, but your loved one may simply want their favourite meals — so find out what they want and prepare them.
  • Remember, little things can mean a lot — A foot bath and offer of a massage can be a real treat, and warm pyjamas or other soft, loose clothing to sit around in at home are a brilliant practical present [fitted clothes can be uncomfortable for someone undergoing radiotherapy or who’s recently had surgery]. Talking or audio books can be great for when your loved one’s too tired to open their eyes.
  • Offer support, but don’t insist — During consultations or treatments, the person may prefer privacy — or may want a helping hand and someone to lend support. Play it by ear. Offer to transport family members to hospital or accompany your loved one to outpatients and back home again [if they live alone, going into an empty house after treatment can be depressing]. Ask if they’d like you to speak to doctors or nurses for them — if they’re feeling weak and ill they may not be up to doing this. But be guided and, remember, some people prefer to go to appointments alone so — again — don’t take it personally.

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