Your loved one has been diagnosed with cancer and you’re devastated. You want to stay strong, but you feel weak in the knees and you’re sure your heart just jumped out of your body. How can you offer emotional support to a loved one with cancer when you may feel like a wreck inside and you don’t have a clue what the right or wrong thing is to say?
The whole cancer experience is extremely complicated and can take more of a psychological toll than physical, said George Royal, PhD, chief of psychology at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville and Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. “The anxiety for the weeks before treatment and between each scan is an everyday thing for the patient and the family.”
Fortunately, you can have a positive impact on your loved one’s cancer journey by being by their side. Communication is key but it’s also important to be understanding, accepting and present. “Tune in to how your loved one feels physically and emotionally,” Dr. Royal said.
“Understand their needs and concerns,” Dr. Royal said. “You can freely give your love and support and let them know that you’ll be with them in this process, so they are not alone.”
Learn as much as you can
Educate yourself about the type of cancer your loved one has—what it is, treatment options and side effects. Make sure both of you have a good understanding of all the treatment options, along with potential risks or side effects.
Your presence will bring emotional support, but you can also serve a practical need.
“Carry a notebook and write things down during doctor’s appointments. Your loved one is likely anxious and may not remember what is said. You can help them prepare for future procedures,” Dr. Royal said. “Go to the medical appointments and treatments. Instead of asking, ‘What was radiation or chemotherapy like?’ you can see what is involved.”
Lend a hand
You don’t need to wait to be asked for help. Cook meals or offer to do some of the household chores they may be too overwhelmed to tackle.
Dr. Royal’s tips for what not to do:
Don’t give advice. (You don’t need to share what your co-worker did when she had cancer.)
Don’t say, “You’ll be okay.” Say, “I understand you are afraid of dying. I am here for you, and we are going to do everything we can.”
Don’t have an expectation of how your loved one is supposed to act. For example, he or she may be irritable or quiet.
Don’t judge their treatment decision (even if you disagree).
Don’t advise them not to worry. It’s not helpful. You are dismissing their emotions and minimizing their fear or concern.
Dr. Royal’s tips for what you should do:
- Say, “I love you,” often. Give hugs.
- Offer reassurance that you will be there. Your loved one wants to feel like a priority. Let them know that you will be at their appointments and will help them with anything they may need.
- Reflect their emotions and be honest. For example, say, “I know you’re scared. I’m scared, too.”
To schedule an appointment with one of our psychologists, please tell your Baptist MD Anderson (BMDA) Cancer Center physician for a referral. You can also call Baptist Behavioral Health directly at 904.376.3800, option 1, to request an appointment with a BMDA psychologist.