How to support a loved one through a cancer diagnosis

Do you know what to say to a friend or loved one when they tell you they have been diagnosed with cancer? Most people do not. “A lot of times, people try to make light of the situation by making a joke because they are uncomfortable, but it can be very inappropriate,” says Regina Johnson, a care navigator for the Lovelace Women’s Hospital Breast Care Center. “The best thing you can do is be there for them, offer to help and make yourself available if they need you. Always be genuine and say you are sorry, that will mean everything in the world. A hand, a hug and saying ‘I’m sorry you are having a hard day, what can I do?’ can go a long way.” 

Here are a few more suggestions that may help as you talk to your loved one: 

·      Say you’re sorry;

·      Tell them you are there for them;

·      Tell them you can listen and be present for them;

·      Ask if they want to talk about it;

·      Ask what you can do;

·      Respect their wishes in their approach to treatment and respect their right to privacy.

For families, especially spouses, it can be hard to know how to help your loved one through surgery, chemotherapy and beyond. “Spouses have a harder time more so than children in that they just don’t know how to help,” says Regina. “I say to the patient, ‘Ask your spouse for help so it’s inclusive and they feel useful to you as you go through this process.’ I also tell the spouse to ask questions, instead of making statements, and be direct when asking questions, such as, ‘How are you feeling about your surgery; what changes are you experiencing?’ so the patient feels like they can talk to you about specifics. Often times, the patient is so wrapped up in protecting their spouse and his/her feelings, that they do not give themselves an avenue to talk about what is really going on.” 

Above all, remember the things that do not help:  

·      Talking about the people you know who have had cancer;

·      Acting like nothing has changed because everything has changed for the cancer patient;

·      Telling them how brave and strong they are -- living up to those ideals can be stressful for your friend, on top of feeling sick and scared;

·      Sharing your personal problems at a time when their problems trump yours;

·      Ignoring them or disappearing from their social circles because you don’t think you can cope with their cancer.

If you are still struggling, the Lovelace Women’s Hospital Breast Care Center provides therapy to the families of patients. “They can come and talk to me if they need to talk to someone,” shares Regina. “Mostly the patients are the ones who come in and talk about their struggles of what is going on at home and how their families do not understand them. Each patient is putting one foot in front of the other as they go through something like this. It’s important to open up those lines of honest communication throughout the process; that way both the spouse and patient will know what to say and what to ask from one another during the process. We really want that whole family unit to move through this together.” 

Lovelace Women’s Hospital’s Breast Care Center offers therapy for cancer patients and their families. For more information or to schedule an appointment with Regina, please call 505.727.6937.