When someone you love is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness such as cancer, it is common to feel helpless or unsure of what to do or say to show your love and support. And it can be hard to know the right way to respond; there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
We asked Dr. Jon Hunter (pictured), who works with breast cancer patients as head of the Psychiatry Consultation and Liaison Division at Mount Sinai Hospital and of Psychosocial Services in Mount Sinai’s Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre, to share some of the insights he has gleaned about how families and friends can best support loved ones going through cancer treatment. Here are his top four tips that you can share in your practice:
1. Do not lose the person in the cancer
Cancer can be disempowering: patients often cannot work, they may have surgery that affects their sense of themselves physically and they will almost certainly endure treatments that make them feel sick and/or tired. The demands of coping with these changes can rise to the forefront, but it is important to remember that your loved one is still an individual with a unique personality, life experiences, sense of humour, etc. Second-guessing or overprotecting them can deprive them of what little control and autonomy they have left. They still have other roles parent, friend, sibling, employee to engage in, and many patients want to have the freedom to take on those roles and “be themselves”, rather than being limited by their illness.
2. Do not assume you know exactly what the person is going through
Everyone experiences illness differently. Some people want to become advocates for the cause; others prefer to cope with their illness privately. Some embrace the “fight” against their illness; others do not want to be defined by their cancer, and try to focus as much as possible on the other people and activities in their lives that are meaningful to them. Even if you have had the same cancer, or a similar illness, it is a mistake to assume you know what your loved one is feeling. Give them the space to define this life-changing experience and their response to it on their own terms.
3. Offer to join them for hospital appointments
For patients, it can be hard to take in new information about diagnosis and treatment options and to make a decision that is going to be right for them. It can be useful to have someone there to help them remember new information clearly, so they can be sure they understand their options and what the ramifications of their decision will be. This kind of support is especially important for non-English speakers, who may face language or cultural barriers that make it more difficult for them to understand what the doctor is saying or to ask questions.
But it is important to remember that you are there in a supportive capacity. Do not make things more difficult for the patient by being aggressive, complaining about wait times or staff, or otherwise drawing attention to yourself.
4. Ask how you can help
Your loved one may feel differently about their illness from day to day, both physically and emotionally. One day they might want to talk, while on another they might wish to simply spend time together without the burden of making conversation or entertaining another person. Ask what they want or need, and listen to what they say. Be open to communication and special requests, and realize that what helps your loved one feel supported and cared for can change from one day to the next, or as their illness or treatment progresses.
Sara Daniels is a Toronto-based writer and founding editor of Sinai Health, a magazine published by Sinai Health Foundation.
Reprinted with permission from Sinai Health Foundation.