I received an email from someone in our community over the weekend asking for advice on what is the best way to help a loved one who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. It’s not an easy place to be, I know. I can still remember the reactions of my friends and family members when I told them I had cancer and only months to live. Horrified doesn’t even come close to what I saw on their faces. And even while I was deeply entrenched in my own drama of trying to fight for my life, I was always aware of the pain and anguish my loved ones were going through.
If your loved one has recently been diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness, there is an immediate sense of urgency and chaos. And confusion. Life goes from normal to a new normal, one that entails phone calls, doctor’s appointments and darkness creeping in around life’s edges.
None of us can ever be prepared for these kinds of events. You hardly have time to catch your breath before you’re thrown into a completely new role, and one you have NO IDEA how to act in.
Here are some things I’ve learned over the years based on my own battle with cancer and from counseling hundreds of other people through their illnesses.
Ensure Your Self-Care First
This may seem counterintuitive. When your loved one has been diagnosed with a serious illness, suddenly everyone’s life stops and it becomes ALL about helping this person. But you will wear yourself out and become sick and exhausted yourself if you don’t make time to take care of your own needs each week.
Be sure you get enough sleep, eat right and deal with your stress in healthy ways (not smoking, drinking in excess or eating garbage). Go for walks, meditate, work out. And when you need help, ASK for it. Just as you are being a support for YOUR loved one, let other loved ones be a support for YOU.
Be an Advocate
Navigating the healthcare system can be an absolute nightmare. Your loved one will most likely have a LOT of appointments with oncologists, nutritionists, integrative doctors, cancer coaches, and other members of their healthcare team. At the beginning, it will greatly help your loved one if you can go to their appointments with them and act as a second set of ears. Take notes. Find a counselor who specializes in cancer recovery and talk to a long-term cancer survivor.
Don’t Take Anything Personally
When I was battling cancer, I was not always the kindest person to be around. It’s funny how facing your own mortality can put you in a cranky mood. Right now, your loved one is dealing with physical, mental and emotional pain. While that doesn’t give them the right to treat their loved ones unkindly, right now they are beside themselves and most likely won’t act like themselves. Do your best to not take their words or actions personally. They are scared and angry – as are you – and they may lash out – as may you. We are all human and we do the best we can do in these intense situations.
I remember so many well-intentioned loved ones asking me during my illness, “What can I do to help?” Each time I was asked this question it took all my strength not to say, “Stop asking me questions!!”
Right now your loved one needs you to try and recognize their needs. No, you’re not a mind reader, but most likely you know your husband’s, wife’s, mom’s, dad’s, sister’s moods, preferences, likes, dislikes pretty well. And by increasing your awareness when you are around them and really observing how they behave, what they are struggling with, the words they say and don’t say… you’ll get a pretty good sense of what it is they need.
Run Errands / Do Chores
You don’t have to be a mind reader to know that laundry needs to be one, dogs need to be walked, cats loved and feed and groceries need to be bought and put away. Don’t ask your loved one if they need help with these chores, they do. Just volunteer with a smile.
After my mother left Australia where I was living at the time to return to her life, I was all alone and felt so lonely and scared. Some friends stopped calling me because they didn’t know what to say. Very few people had the strength to just sit with me in my fear and sip a cup of tea and listen.
It’s not easy, and not everyone can do it, but if you are someone who is very strong, you can be the person to sit there and listen. Don’t feel you need to solve your loved ones problems, give them false hope or make them “all better”. Don’t feel you need to come up with the right words or even any words. Just be still and BE THERE with them.
To all of you who are going through this right now, I send you much love, light, peace and healing.