Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can be overwhelming, but no one needs to go through the experience alone.
Cancer Society chief executive Mike Kernaghan says that there are various types of support for a person with cancer – practical, physical, emotional and spiritual.
“You may not see yourself as a supporter, rather as someone simply taking care of a person who needs you.”
He says a supporter’s role may be a natural extension of a relationship, or it might mean adjusting the relationship you have with the person already. Each situation, and each diagnosis, is different, he says.
“Everyone handles things differently. No two people are the same. Listening is key. By listening, you can help your loved one to talk about their concerns, which could help them to put them in perspective. You don’t have to be a brilliant conversationalist. You don’t have to know all the answers, or even any of them. Just being there and listening is all that may be needed.”
He says one of the most difficult things many people with cancer face is isolation.
“Don’t avoid them. People avoid them because they don’t know what to say. The key is to tell your friend, loved one, colleague, ‘I don’t know what to say in support; however, I’m here to listen or help out where I can’.”
Kernaghan says that silence is also an underrated tool.
“It’s actually okay. Your friend may want to be silent for a while to think about things, or merely to rest from talking. If you can be quiet, this may be the right response as there may not be anything to say.”
He suggests avoiding telling the stories of other people you have known with cancer.
“Your role is to be a friend and support them in making contact with those who can help.”
Don’t become an ‘expert’
Kernaghan says supporters should try to avoid becoming experts in medical terminology.
“Definitely avoid Google. We recommend speaking with those in the know and getting your friend or family member to write down a list of questions for their treatment healthcare professional before appointments.”
Going to appointments alongside the person is also a good idea, he says. “Often they do not take on board everything that is said.”
The Cancer Society has an up-to-date online glossary, as well as hard-copy publications, that can help explain medical terms.
“Also avoid giving people information about non-evidence-based treatments. This is not helpful and could cause further distress.”
He says sometimes people find that what is most important is to remain the person you were before the diagnosis.
“Cancer does not define the person. If you used to watch rugby with them before, then continue to offer to do this.”
However, supporters should be wary of over-committing and under-delivering.
“Be realistic about what you can do. Keeping in regular contact, even via phone, can be enough.”
Treatments can take a toll on cancer patients, he said. “Your friend may not be as available as they were before. Don’t give up on them. They may actually need you more after treatment has finished.”
The Cancer Society has a range of resources to support those with cancer, or those helping loved ones through cancer.
“We know how a cancer diagnosis can affect every aspect of your life and we are here to help you through.”
Cancer Connect peer support
Cancer Connect, operated by the Cancer Society, provides peer support for those dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
“We can put you in touch with someone who can relate to what you’re going through.”
Every Cancer Connect peer supporter has had cancer, or cared for someone living with cancer, says Kernaghan.
The Cancer Society website also offers a wide range of support services, and local divisions allow people to speak to someone within the Society directly.
“If you want to talk, we are here to listen. No one should face cancer alone.”