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10 Ways to Support a Cancer Patient

Author with arm around his mother at oncology office waiting room.I currently share the mixed blessing of being in cancer remission with my mom. It’s not genetic; I’m adopted.

I’m remarkably grateful to be in remission with her, but uncertain how, as a non-smoking former athlete, I succumbed to a smoker’s cancer diagnosis on my birthday. Or, far worse, how my mom was hit with a rare stage IV breast cancer called Inflammatory Breast Cancer. I would take her illness on if that were ever an option in my regular fantasy where Hollywood or some omnipotent entity granted my wish.

Being in this unenvied position, I’ve learned that the only thing worse than your own pain is helplessly watching a loved one suffer. The first is physical, the latter crushingly emotional. Yet it does not stop me from trying to will health or strength upon her.

A major stressor faced by many people in their lifetime is a cancer diagnosis. Studies show that people do better emotionally in such a crisis when they have strong support from family members and friends.Sadly, cancer patients too commonly cite instances of people they know who never communicated emotional support regarding their illness.

Cancer has a way of quickly re-prioritizing life.

At the same time, it teaches a valuable lesson in perspective not otherwise gleaned. According to a study by Katharine J. Head of the Department of Communication Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, “Although adult cancer survivors and their families face unique psychosocial and health-related challenges related to cancer, little is known about how the illness experience of cancer may positively transform their mental, physical, and social well-being following primary treatment.” 2

My cancer diagnosis served as the perfect opportunity to “clean house” regarding friends, work, and how I spent my time. Suddenly, I was face-to-face with the regret of how I had been spending my life thus far and with whom. I quickly ditched shallow friends, a girlfriend who drank too much, and even a toxic sibling. Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge.

If one of your friends or loved ones has been diagnosed with cancer, you might not know what to say or do to help. Here are some good ways to start.

    1. Listen and give advice only when asked. We all want to ease the pain of those we care about. But dispensing unsolicited advice is one of the worst things you can do for those newly diagnosed with cancer. Conversely, one of the best things you can do is to offer the gift of listening with empathy. Telling someone that frankincense, CBD, turmeric, or beaver cartilage can cure their cancer deserves a pepper spray facial. Just don’t.
    2. Support their cancer treatment decision. We cannot impose our will on others, even in instances of record-level clinical relevancy or as a shared decision-maker. The choice rests with the patient. And if your loved one asks you to contact medical providers, be sure you have written consent. Privacy laws prohibit health professionals from speaking to relatives—including parents or adult children—without the patient’s permission. As I’ve learned firsthand, you can’t “parent your parents.”
    3. Be present. Even in silence, the mere presence of someone we care for during a difficult time has immediate and lasting benefits. Sit with your loved one during treatment or have lunch with them afterward. Even better if it falls within the oncologist’s dietary recommendations. Your loved one may love sugar, but so do cancer cells.
    4. Learn about cancer and specific treatment plan. Many reputable organizations offer educational information and resources regarding cancer treatments and side effects. Be cautious of your sources or how much you read, however. It’s common to get overwhelmed and frantic—especially regarding prognosis percentages that are overgeneralized and unspecific to your loved one’s case. Internet research is an activity best kept in moderation.
    5. Consider the caregiver. International research shows that caregiving for cancer patients is associated with a significant decline in mental health status and overall quality of life.3 This is an often-overlooked premise. Cancer caregivers take on many tasks, often including those formerly held by the recently diagnosed. The caregiver needs care too. Sometimes you need to call on backup in the form of additional family, friends, or professional care staff.
    6. Be steadfast. Those with cancer often experience a discernible drop-off in support from friends and family after the initial diagnosis. Cancer is a long-term disease followed by a longer remission period. It requires more from supporters than a gratuitous slap on the back and a “You’ll kick this, buddy!” cheer. This ain’t the flu. Prepare accordingly.
    7. Help keep the status quo. For many people, being able to maintain life pre-cancer diagnosis can boost their sense of mastery over the illness and lessen the impact of the disease. I maintained my gym weightlifting regimen during chemo as best I could, despite the physical setbacks and complete lack of energy. The only thing I felt like lifting most days was my TV remote.
    8. Don’t be detached if you are long-distance. Never underestimate the emotional support that comes from regular phone calls or texts. Since you might be too far to prepare food and bring it yourself, perhaps arrange to have meals delivered from a local restaurant or healthy meal service. Or consider ordering groceries from a delivery app or local supermarket that delivers. Use vacation time or a holiday weekend and visit with the ill person doing something enjoyable. For them.
    9. If you have the means, offer financial assistance. Cancer is a money pit. It can strain finances to the point of financial ruin, and many people are too proud or ashamed to ask for monetary assistance. If you think it’s needed and are able to offer, raise the subject respectfully.
    10. Spend time in meditative prayer. I don’t care who you call your higher power, this is the time to send some knee-mails. I regularly lean on prayer, daily gratitude, and striving to stay mindfully rooted in the moment — helpful tactics I would not have learned sans cancer.

They say laughter is the best medicine. Unless you have cancer. Then chemo is pretty good.



Snyder, K. A., & Pearse, W. (2010). Crisis, social support, and the family response: exploring the narratives of young breast cancer survivors. Journal of psychosocial oncology, 28(4), 413–431.

Head, K. J., & Iannarino, N. T. (2019). “It Changed Our Outlook on How We Want to Live”: Cancer as a Transformative Health Experience for Young Adult Survivors and Their Family Members. Qualitative health research, 29(3), 404–417.

Woźniak, K., & Iżycki, D. (2014). Cancer: a family at risk. Przeglad menopauzalny = Menopause review, 13(4), 253–261.

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