Supporting a friend through cancer

Psychologist Nick Petrovic offers practical tips for supporting a friend who is living with cancer.

People with cancer can feel extremely isolated, especially when loved ones are not emotionally able to deal with the difficulty of seeing them suffer. While we may feel helpless, there are in fact many ways to help a loved one through this extremely difficult time.

Reach out with notes and calls

It is important to let your friend or loved one know you are there for them. Brief, frequent notes or regular, short phone calls can be a good way of reaching out, especially during times when your loved one is not feeling up to visits. Use the opportunity to ask questions about what they might need and be sure to follow up with any further offers of support. It is important to call at times that suit your loved one, or set time aside for them to call you if they wish.

Show support through visits

It is important that you prepare yourself before visiting your loved one. Be ready for changes in their appearance, emotional state and energy levels. Be sure to always call before dropping by, and keep visits short but frequent. Keep an eye out throughout the visit for signs that your friend or loved one needs rest, and be aware that they may be feeling embarrassed or self-conscious about their condition. It can be helpful to visit during times other than weekends or holidays when most people would think to do the same – the weekdays can feel very long and lonely, especially if your loved one is housebound. Don’t feel offended if they cut your visit short, or if their family requests that you let them rest.

Give comfort with gifts

Small, practical gifts that can give your friend or loved one comfort and enjoyment can help make this difficult time a little easier. Consider their everyday experience and look for little things that might make their day a little brighter. Whether it’s some silky socks, special toiletries, books, funny movies or favourite snacks, aim for small gifts that can be used right away. You might also consider a gift for their caregiver. Remember to insist that thank-you notes are not required – that way your loved one can enjoy the gift without any pressure of having to return the favour.

Whether it’s some silky socks, special toiletries, books, funny movies or favourite snacks, aim for small gifts that can be used right away.

bodysized how to support a friend through cancer

Practical help and planning ahead

Part of what makes cancer so frustrating for some people is their lessened ability to do things that were once easy or enjoyable for them. Offer support by helping with practical tasks such as housework, caring for pets, grocery shopping or paying bills. Remember that your loved one may be reluctant to ask for assistance, so it can be helpful to give specific options for how you would like to help them.

Finally, remember that emotional support can be extremely comforting during any illness and listening can be as important, if not more so, than talking. Let your friend know that you are there for them if they ever want to talk, and be prepared to cover a variety of topics and emotions. Don’t be afraid of setting up future meetings or making plans, as this will give them something to look forward to and help them focus on things that bring them joy. The situation may be a difficult one, but moments of laughter and joy will mean a lot.

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