Caring for a loved one with cancer

Being diagnosed with cancer is a difficult thing to go through but not just for the person receiving the diagnosis — it also has a huge impact on their loved ones. Going through treatment for cancer is both mentally and physically challenging, which is why the support of loved ones is so important. However, it can be hard to know exactly how to help someone who has cancer. Here are some tips to help you help your loved one through this difficult time.

Acknowledge your role as a carer

A lot of people don’t see themselves as carers, which means they often don’t get the support they need. If you help and support someone with cancer, unpaid, you are a carer. This includes both emotional and practical support. It could be driving them to appointments, making meals for them, or being their advocate and talking to people on their behalf. If it makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to use the word ‘carer’ when you are discussing it with your loved one, but you should both acknowledge your role.

As a carer for someone with cancer, you should make yourself known to their healthcare team. They can give you helpful information and advice, and provide additional support services if needed.

Talking and listening

When you find out a loved one has cancer, it can be hard to know what to say. It can take a while for the person receiving the diagnosis to come to terms with it. One of the best things you can do is listen to them and be their sounding board. Let them shout or cry if they need to. Reassure them it’s okay to go through the wide range of emotions involved with a cancer diagnosis. They may feel anger, fear, grief, uncertainty and sadness. While they may appreciate you trying to cheer them up and be positive, sometimes they will just need to let those negative emotions out.

Don’t be afraid to say if you’re feeling awkward and don’t know what to say to your loved one. Ask them if they want to talk about it, and if they don’t want to, then respect their decision but do ask them again after a while. They may just need some time alone with their thoughts before they feel ready to talk. Take their lead when it comes to discussing their cancer and treatment — some people like to joke and laugh about it, while others prefer a more serious approach.

Being a good conscious listener is something that may be difficult at first — conscious listening involves actively listening when you’re having a conversation with someone, while also being aware of your own feelings and needs as well as those of the person you’re talking with. To help improve your ability to consciously listen, make sure you and your loved one have some private time to talk without interruptions. Face them, make eye contact and give them time to find the words to express themselves. Don’t feel obliged to fill a silence or to try and cheer them up if they cry. If you’re finding it difficult or upsetting, don’t be afraid to say so but avoid turning things around and making it about you.

Giving emotional support

While practical help can be essential, never underestimate the importance of giving someone emotional support. If you’re providing emotional support, you will need to learn not to take it personally if your loved one becomes upset, angry or tries to push you away. They will be going through a lot of strong emotions and might not always know how to handle them.

It’s tempting to try looking for solutions but this is not always helpful. Your loved one will be getting expert help and advice from their healthcare team, so bombarding them with information from the internet can be an unnecessary distraction. Even if you or someone you know had cancer, remember that everyone’s experience is unique and what works for one person may not work for another. Ask your loved one if there is anything they want to know or if there’s anything you can do to make life easier for them instead.

There are lots of ways to show someone that you are there for them, even if you don’t live nearby. Send them a card or even a text message to let them know that you’re thinking about them, or phone them and see if they want a chat. If you’re with them in person and don’t know what to say, give them a hug or just a friendly hand squeeze. Make time for them — if you’ve offered your loved one the chance to talk, make sure you’re available for them to do exactly that and be fully present so that you can be a good listener.

Practical ways to help

The practical help needed when going through cancer treatment will vary from person to person, so it’s a good idea to sit down and have a frank talk about what your loved one wants or needs help with. Some people want to be as independent as possible and don’t want help. Respect their wishes but make sure they know that the offer is still there if they change their mind. 

There’s a fine line between respecting someone’s right to refuse help and proactively making sure your loved one is not struggling. Often, a specific offer to do a certain task is much easier to agree to than a vague offer of help. Try suggesting things that will provide support without making them feel that they are inconveniencing you, such as making a shopping list of items you can pick up for them when you’re doing your own shopping or offering to freeze your leftover meals.

If help is needed and wanted, don’t feel you have to take it all on yourself. Sometimes it can be helpful to set up a rota with a few trusted friends and family members. You could include:

  • Cooking meals
  • Grocery shopping and collecting prescriptions
  • Helping with child care, such as doing the school run
  • Helping with housework or gardening
  • Looking after pets
  • Taking them to appointments

Often, practical and emotional support overlap. You might bring your loved one a meal and stay for a chat. Having someone there for support during treatment and appointments can mean a lot. There’s a lot to take in during appointments with specialists, so having someone there to take notes and ask questions can be really helpful. 

Know when to help and when not to

Knowing when to help and when to step back is a skill you will develop during your time as a carer. Your loved one will have times when they want to rest or be alone.

Sometimes, offers of help and well-wishing visitors can become overwhelming. People going through cancer treatment often feel fatigued and even having a conversation can tire them out. Your loved one might appreciate having someone to coordinate visitors and helpers so that they don’t get tired out.

Look after yourself

You will likely be juggling your role as a carer with your own life, so make sure you don’t take on too much and take time to look after yourself too. You won’t be any help if you burn yourself out by doing too much. You might find other friends and family members want to do their bit, so let them take on some of the support roles. Alternatively, perhaps your own family and friends can do things for you, while you help out your loved one.

Support for carers

There are dedicated resources available for carers of people with cancer. If you’re acting as the primary carer for someone with cancer, you can ask social services for a carer’s assessment. They may be able to provide practical support.

Help is also available from Macmillan, Cancer Research, Carers UK, Carers Trust and Marie Curie.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Author Information

Cahoot Care Marketing

Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.

The Spire Content Hub project was managed by:

Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager

Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.