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Helping someone with cancer

There are many ways you can help someone with cancer (or someone who is caring for someone with cancer). The first thing you need to know is that every person’s cancer experience is unique. Try not to assume that the person you know will feel or act a certain way.

When someone is first diagnosed, many people offer their care and support. This help often goes away over time, even though it’s needed just as much as it was in the early days. Cancer treatment and recovery can take many months, so do your best to support the person you know throughout the entire cancer journey.

Visiting someone who has cancer

Having visitors can boost the spirits of someone with cancer. Your visit also gives caregivers a break so they can relax or get something done. It’s quite common to feel uneasy or uncomfortable around people with cancer, especially if they look or seem different. You may also feel sorry for your friend or guilty for being healthy yourself. For your friend’s sake, try to get through any discomfort you have. Remind yourself that cancer isn’t contagious, so don’t avoid a friend at a time when you’re needed the most.

Tips for visiting someone with cancer

Call before you visit to make sure visitors are welcome. If you can’t visit that day, don’t be afraid to suggest that you visit at another time. Don’t be offended if your friend is feeling too tired, cranky or ill for visitors.

Be flexible, even if plans have been made. You may have to reschedule if your friend doesn’t feel like having visitors on the day that was chosen. Be sensitive to the needs and moods of your friend.

Don’t make plans to visit if you’re going to be distracted or rushed. Turn off your cellphone or mobile device during the visit and give your friend your undivided attention.

Don’t be afraid to touch your friend. A simple squeeze of the hand, a pat on the arm or a hug can say much more than words.

Avoid wearing any scent (body lotion, perfume, aftershave and so on). Sometimes people are very sensitive to scent when they’re having chemotherapy.

Don’t feel that you always have to talk. It’s okay to sit silently together. Your company is what matters.

If neither of you wants to talk, you can still be supportive by doing something together. Suggest that you continue a routine or tradition you share with your friend (with some changes, if needed). For example, go for a walk, watch TV or a movie, listen to music or do a shared hobby. (Keep in mind that cancer or treatment may limit what your friend can do, at least for a while.)

Don’t stay too long. You don’t want to tire your friend out.

Giving gifts

Some people like to give or send gifts, but don’t feel that you have to. If you do want to give a gift, think about what might make your friend feel good or help with something practical. Don’t forget to consider whether the demands of cancer and its treatment have affected your friend’s time, energy, concentration and ability to get around. Caregivers may also appreciate gifts and cards with words of support.

Here are a few gift ideas:

  • magazines or books
  • music
  • DVDs
  • puzzle books
  • note cards or a journal
  • gift certificates for a housecleaning service
  • gift certificates for spa services
  • pyjamas or a robe

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Talking to someone with cancer

Many people are afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone with cancer. You’ll do just fine if you use your own words to show interest and concern, express encouragement or offer support.

You might say:

I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care about you.

I’m sorry that you’re going through this.

If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.

What are you feeling? (This may help someone start talking more than asking, How are you feeling?)

I’m thinking of you.

You’re in my prayers.

Don’t say:

I know how you feel. (If you haven’t had the same experience with cancer, then you don’t.)

I don’t know how you manage.

Don’t worry.

I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Tell me what I can do to help. (Instead, be specific about what you can do.)

How much time do the doctors give you?

I know someone who had the same thing and it was really horrible.

I feel so bad about this. It’s making me cry all the time. (This isn’t about you.)

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How to be a good listener

Being a good listener means trying to be aware of someone’s thoughts and feelings as much as you can. These tips should help.

Get the basics right

Try to keep the setting as private as possible. Do your best to look comfortable and relaxed, even if you’re nervous.

Keep a comfortable amount of space between you and your friend. Too much distance can make things feel formal and too little can feel cramped. Try to make sure there are no physical obstacles between you. If your friend is in hospital and there’s a table in the way, it’s okay to say something like, “It’s not very easy to talk across this table. Can I move it for our visit?”

Let the person with cancer be the leader. If they want to talk, listen. Don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk.

Try to keep eye contact, but don’t maintain it for so long that it feels like staring. Be aware of how the other person feels (there may be different cultural approaches to eye contact).

Help, don’t hinder, the conversation

Don’t interrupt. Wait for your friend to stop speaking before you start, and give your full attention to what your friend is saying. Try not to jump ahead in your thoughts to how you’re going to reply or what you’ll say next.

Encourage the person with cancer to talk freely. It can help to nod and say things like, “Yes, I see” or “And then what happened?” You can also try repeating a few words from their last sentence – this will help them feel that they are being heard.

It can really help to just listen while your friend talks about what they want to talk about, even if it’s distressing for you. If you find the topic too hard, you can say so and offer to try to talk about it later. Don’t simply change the subject without acknowledging the fact that what your friend is talking about is important to you both.

Admit that you don’t know what to say or that you find things difficult to talk about. Getting this out in the open can actually help the conversation because it reduces feelings of awkwardness.

Avoid giving advice unless you’re sure you’ve been asked for it. Don’t give it too early in the conversation because it will stop a 2-way discussion. Do not give medical advice or talk about someone else’s cancer experience.

Respond to humour if your friend uses it. While cancer may not be funny, humour is a very helpful way of coping with major threats and fears. It can help with intense feelings and often helps get things in perspective. So if your friend wants to use humour, go along with it.

Use silence and touch

Don’t feel that you have to say something all the time. Silence can help people pull their thoughts together. Wait with your friend for a moment and then ask what they were thinking about. Don’t rush it, even if the silence seems to last a long time.

Hold your friend’s hand or touch them if it feels right to do so while you’re waiting. If they pull away, simply draw back and give them some space.

Allow your friend to be upset

It’s important to allow people to say that they feel sad or upset. Try to be willing to talk about tough topics like the chance of the cancer being cured or making a will. It can be tempting to try to cheer them up by saying things like, “Of course you’ll be fine, just try to be positive,” but this will actually stop someone from talking about how they really feel. It’s better to let them speak freely and acknowledge their emotions.

If your friend cries, don’t try to stop them. Reassure them that it’s okay to cry. As upsetting as it is for you to watch, tears are a natural response to distress and may be a very important release for your friend.

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Helping in practical ways

Practical help with everyday tasks can really help people with cancer and their caregivers. While you’re doing the day-to-day work, they can focus on treatment and getting much-needed rest. Instead of saying, “Just call if you need anything,” be creative. Find something you can do and suggest that you do it for them.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Drive your friend to and from medical appointments.
  • Shop for groceries or offer to get prescriptions.
  • Offer to do household chores, such as getting the mail, walking the dog, doing laundry, cleaning, cutting the grass, watering plants, shovelling snow or taking out the garbage.
  • Prepare meals that the family can easily freeze and reheat. (Check first to see if cancer treatment has affected what your friend can eat, as well as the family’s likes and dislikes.)
  • Help look after children. Take them to and from school and evening activities, or arrange play dates.
  • Offer to be a “point person” to organize schedules for meals, rides, chores or visitors. Sometimes just organizing many offers of help can seem overwhelming.

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Helping a co-worker with cancer

Relationships between people in the workplace can vary a lot. This can make it especially hard to know how to act or what to say when a co-worker has cancer. Some people may not want to talk about having cancer while at work.They may prefer to focus on their job tasks, rather than on cancer. The following information can help with some work-related issues, whether you don’t know the person very well or you have worked together for many years and become good friends.

The importance of work

Many people with cancer find it very important to continue working as much as possible. While financial and insurance issues may affect their decision to work during treatment, going to work can be a source of stability because it’s their usual routine and it’s familiar. This can help when they are feeling out of control in other ways. Work can boost feelings of self-worth and help people focus on what they can do rather than on their illness.

Work also provides contact with other people. Cancer can be isolating, and being around people can be a great comfort to someone during their cancer journey.

Privacy and confidentiality

It’s important to respect a co-worker’s personal information and choice to share a diagnosis of cancer or any other health concern.

If a co-worker tells you that they have cancer, don’t tell anyone else unless your co-worker says this is okay. Let them be the one to tell others. If someone else at work asks you about it, you can say something like, “It's not my place to discuss this, but I'm sure Ann will appreciate your concern. I’ll let her know you asked about her.”

It might feel awkward if you hear through the office grapevine that a co-worker has cancer. You could ask the person who told you if the information is public. If it’s not, it’s probably best not to say anything to the person with cancer. But if it’s public information, don’t ignore it. You might say to your co-worker, in a caring way, “I heard about your health concerns and I’m thinking about you.”

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If you supervise someone with cancer

Employers have to make every effort to accommodate employees during their cancer journey. An employee’s illness can affect certain tasks and may mean that other employees need to share or increase their workload. This can lead to confusion, gossip or resentment in the workplace.

As a supervisor or manager, don’t assume that what an employee tells you is to be shared widely. Find out how much an employee with cancer would like to share or not share with co-workers. At the very least, co-workers may need to know that someone will be away from work or their work duties are being adjusted for health reasons. While it’s very important to respect the wishes of an employee with cancer, it’s also important to encourage open lines of communication between you and your other employees in terms of how any work issues will be managed. Encourage everyone to discuss their feelings and ideas about sharing the extra work. Talk about any other work issues related to the illness or absence of a co-worker.

If your place of work has a nurse, doctor or employee and family assistance program, you can make sure your employee knows about these sources of support.

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