Sadly, the diagnosis of cancer in the UK is continuing to rise. Whether this is from increased detection or an increase in incidence is hard to tell at the moment, but this does mean that nearly half of us at some point in our lives will have a diagnosis of cancer.
Chances are that you already know someone who has had cancer or perhaps had a diagnosis yourself. I have personal experience of cancer through friends and family having their own diagnoses and from the many years I have worked with cancer patients.
Thankfully these days, most often a diagnosis is not a death sentence; but it can be life changing. Diagnosis and treatment can be a frightening, bewildering and challenging process. Numerous studies have found that cancer survivors who have strong emotional support tend to adjust to the changes cancer brings to their lives more easily, have a more positive outlook, and often report a better quality of life.
I wouldn’t claim to be the foremost expert and certainly I have made well-meaning mistakes in the past. Nevertheless I have had the good fortune to work with many wonderful people who have helped me understand how to support those going through cancer treatment.
Being a good listener is the most important skill you can have. Clear your mind of anything you want to say, drop any agenda, and simply listen. Being heard is so empowering in a situation where someone may feel quite powerless.
2. Be honest
It’s ok to say you don’t know how to handle this, that you are worried about doing the ‘wrong thing’, that you want to help but don’t know how. Or to ask them if it’s ok to talk about something. This opens an honest dialogue and allows the patient to lead.
3. Don’t avoid them or walk on eggshells
It is a common story that cancer patients feel like people are avoiding them or are treating them strangely! Usually this comes from fear of saying the wrong thing. Cancer patients want to maintain friendships, have a laugh, be treated as the same person they still are.
4. Ask what they would like or need
When we visit somebody ill it can be tempting to impose our idea of what ‘looking after someone’ means. Sometimes we may have a need to feel like we are doing something useful. Rather, ask them how they feel today and what they would appreciate most, it may be a foot rub, having lunch together, going for a walk or running some errands while they sleep.
5. Don’t offer theories on why they have cancer
There are many complex reasons why people may develop cancer: some are genetic, some are environmental, some are lifestyle and some are unknown. It will not help the patient get better if they feel they are being blamed or it is their fault for getting cancer in the first place. If they want to make changes to improve their health such as giving up smoking then offer support in that.
6. Don’t offer treatment advice or a miracle cure!
There can be a huge amount of information to take in when receiving a cancer diagnosis. Treatment choices are not always straight forward and the patient may have doubts, questions, or other options to consider. Cancer patients need to have their choices respected. It will not be helpful to jump in with the latest miracle drug or diet you read about on the internet, however well-meaning! You could however offer to find out information for them. You could also offer to help them compile a list of questions for their consultant and/or attend the appointment with them.
7. Don’t tell them to stay strong or positive
It’s perfectly normal to feel low, sad, angry or depressed at times after receiving a cancer diagnosis. It can be a big shock and something quite scary. Treatment also is often the first time patients actually feel unwell. Many have told me “I felt fine until I started chemo”. Many people lose their sense of taste, their appetite, their hair and their energy. Being told they have to stay positive or keep up the fight to get better puts added stress in a difficult situation and devalues the patients feelings.
8. Don’t share horror stories!
It always amazes me how often people have told me this happens to them. But really telling someone going through cancer stories of perfectly healthy people dropping dead a week after diagnosis or the agonies another relative went through is so counter-productive! Inspirational stories are so much more helpful.
9. Offer practical support
Cancer treatment can be physically tiring and time consuming. We often say, “call me if you need anything” but that can put too much onus on the patient who may feel they are asking too much or being a burden. Offer specific help such as “I’m going food shopping, can I pick up anything for you”, “I have a free morning can I come and do some cleaning for you”, “I’m available to take you to your appointment if you want a lift or moral support”, “I could take the kids to their afterschool activities”.
10. Keep in touch
Regular contact lets someone know that they are still part of people’s lives and are not forgotten. Keep them in the loop with regular short emails and texts with a quick hello, personal updates, photos of family, links to a book or TV show they might like (not cancer related). Also keep them involved in your life by asking their opinion or advice so they know they are valued.
If you are a carer, relative or close friend, do remember that you will also need some support. The cancer diagnosis will have an emotional and practical impact on your life too. There are organisations that offer support to both patients and their friends and families such as Maggies and Macmillan.
I teach yoga at Maggies in the Cancerkin Centre, NW3 on Fridays and offer private reflexology treatments for cancer patients and their carers in North London. Feel free to contact or further information or a free 15 min consultation.
Info & Resources:
Maggies have beautiful centres around the UK that offer classes, therapies and support groups.
Macmillan can offer information and advice not only on cancer but on financial and social support.
Cancer Support offer emotional and psychological support both in person and by phone.
CancerActive shares information and research on complementary and integrative therapies.