Supporting a Loved One With Cancer
Health + Wellness Health SEEN Wellness

7 Ways to Support a Loved One With Cancer

October 9, 2019

Here’s where to go and what to do in Metro Detroit that will help lift spirits.

By Dana Frost

Photography by Hallie Kohler

When I was 28 years old, I sat in a sterile hospital room wearing nothing but a blue printed hospital gown and oversized fuzzy socks and was told, “You have cancer.” Distracted by the inspirational cat poster hanging on the wall, I thought I misheard and asked the doctor to repeat himself.

“You have cancer.”

In that 60-second exchange, the course of my life was altered. Those three little words meant that cancer would forever be a part of my story. I would either survive it or fall victim to it.

After being told I had cancer, I was told a lot of other words by well-intentioned loved ones — cliché platitudes that were meant to support, but usually ended up falling flat. Everything from the optimistic, “You will beat this!” to the insensitive, “My friend had the same cancer and died.” None of those words made me feel supported.

Since that dreaded day in the hospital, I have personally gone through not one, but two bouts of cancer. I have watched my husband suffer and pass away from a rare form of kidney cancer. And I have taken care of my father as he battled esophageal cancer.

I am, what some might call, an expert on the topic. And if I learned one thing, it’s not words that will make the biggest difference. Cancer is so personal and unique — you will inevitably say the wrong thing (and that’s OK — we’re all learning!). What matters most are actions.

From my experience, here are seven ways you can support someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, even if you don’t have the right words.

Supporting a Loved One With Cancer

Show up. This one is simple but can be surprisingly rare. Cancer forces us to confront our own fears surrounding illness or death. Rather than deal with the reality that — as my husband used to say — we’re all terminal, people avoid that fact. And unfortunately, that means avoiding the diagnosed who is in most need of support. Try to put your own discomfort aside and show up anyway. Even if you feel awkward. Even if you don’t know what to say. A cancer diagnosis can be extremely isolating and it’s better to show up imperfectly than not show up at all. Bonus points if you show up with takeout from Mudgie’s and a bottle of wine from Motor City Wine.

Allow your loved one to express emotion — all emotions. Avoid the need to “fix it,” telling your friend she’ll be fine (unless you have a Magic 8 Ball that can accurately tell the future). Sure, be positive, but also give space to the other emotions she is inescapably feeling — like fear, sadness and anger. Give her the space to cry. To laugh. To scream. Want to be a really good friend? Take her to a 20-minute Rage Room session (you get a bin of 25 breakable items at the Escape Room-Zone in Madison Heights) to sufficiently get frustrations out.

Help with the logistics of daily life. Run errands. Drive them to appointments. Stock the fridge. Take the dogs out (or drop them off at Canine to Five). Babysit the kids. Offer to help, but don’t just say, “let me know if you need anything” (that puts it on the patient to reach out). Instead, be specific. Say something like, “While you’re at chemo tomorrow, Detroit Sunshine is going to come clean your house and I’m going to take your kids to the Outdoor Adventure Center in Detroit.”

Tell a joke. Seriously. Bring on the humor! A patient’s life revolves around stares of pity and doctor appointments and life-changing decisions. Get his mind off the serious and help lighten the mood. Take him to the movies to see the latest comedy. Or go to a live show at Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale. As they say, laughter is the best medicine, so bring all the meds.

Take walks if possible. Decreased energy is a huge side effect for most dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Going for regular walks — ones that feel more like an excuse to socialize than exercise — are a great way to keep up their energy level and spirits. Grab a coffee from Ashe Supply Co. downtown and head to the Detroit RiverWalk for a stroll.

Don’t disappear after treatment. While the treatment is often the most physically taxing part of a diagnosis, oftentimes a patient can struggle emotionally for years after. Whether because of a fear of recurrence or a change in perspective, the effects of cancer remain far beyond the treatment. Check in regularly, especially on anniversaries of important dates — like their diagnosis and remission dates.

Help find joy. A diagnosis can be a dark and scary time. Sometimes it feels like you have to force joy to find it. When loved ones are struggling to find the delight, help them to appreciate the little things. Turn up the music and dance around the kitchen. Bring over a pile of puppies to snuggle with. Anything you can do to bring a little joy during this difficult time.

Dana Frost is a writer and the founder of the Forced Joy Project. She is a big believer in sharing our stories of both grief and joy and an even bigger believer of kitchen dance parties. You can find her on Instagram at @ForcedJoyProject.

1 Comment

  • Alice Carroll
    November 8, 2020 at 8:45 PM

    You made a good point that expressing emotions are healthy, whether they are positive or negative ones. I will have to keep that in mind when helping out my aunt in dealing with cancer someday. She was recently in a state of shock after being diagnosed so it will be quite an uphill climb for her to start with cancer treatment.

Leave a Reply