I just found out someone I know has cancer. How can I help?

Realize you are not alone in asking this question. We are not necessarily well prepared for such situations. While it can be challenging to find something to say or do, here are a few key guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Be aware of the nature of the relationship

The person you know may be a dear friend or loved one. They might be a neighbor or coworker. They might be an acquaintance. Consider the level of comfort the person with cancer may have in receiving the help. Try putting yourself in their shoes to determine what would make them most comfortable. For example, the person may be more comfortable having you clean their house if you are a close family member and may be more comfortable having you provide rides if you are a co-worker.

2. There are different types of support to give

Recognize that the cancer experience affects a person both physically and emotionally. Types of support can be divided into two basic categories – emotional and instrumental. The first type addresses a person’s feelings and includes talking, praying, spending time together. The second type, instrumental support, includes cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, caring for kids or pets, shoveling snow or mowing grass. Maybe you could organize the person’s needs and match the need to the helper. There are websites and resources available, such as sharethecare.org or Lotsahelpinghands.com. What skills do you have and what are you in the best position to offer?

3. Needs can change over time

Is the person you know with cancer newly diagnosed? In early stages of treatment? Transitioning from active treatment? A long-term survivor? The needs of a person with cancer can change over time. For example, a newly diagnosed person might need meals prepared for family, while a person in active treatment might want company while having chemotherapy. Consider what phase of treatment the individual is going through as you make plans to help.

4. Follow the person’s lead

The person with cancer may or may not want to share their feelings about or details of their treatment experiences. Not only might this vary from individual to individual, the same person likely has times that they want to discuss cancer and times they do not want to talk about it. They may want to talk about themselves, but they may be just as likely to want to hear about you. Listen to what they’re saying. Watch for changes in expressions. Ask what they want to talk about today. If someone does choose to share personal details with you, remember to be respectful of their privacy.

5. Be flexible

One of the hallmarks of the cancer experience is unpredictability. Oftentimes, reactions to treatment can vary day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. Naturally this can be challenging for both the person with cancer and those offering to help. Be flexible in your expectations and realize that the person you care about might experience something unexpected and need to change plans on short notice. Be willing and prepared to make changes in accordance with their changing needs.

6. Don’t take it personally

Recognize that the person you care about might be making major decisions, coping with uncertainty, feeling physically ill. You may feel that the person is acting differently or treating you differently. The cancer experience is a process of change and requires increased self-focus. Keep in mind that the changes in someone being treated for cancer are more than likely due to the many challenges they are experiencing and not specific to you, so try not to take it personally.

7. Get the support you need

While the diagnosis and treatment are happening to the person with cancer, there can be a rippling effect on others involved. The person struggling with cancer may be someone you usually rely on who cannot presently be available. Or you may find you are making comparisons to the person’s situation and forgetting about your own needs. If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ve heard the flight attendant explain the importance of putting on your oxygen mask before assisting others. Always remember to take care of yourself while you are caring for others. UW Carbone Cancer Center Health Newsletter, October 2013.  Lisa McGuffey, PhD, is a Senior Clinical Health Psychologist in the UW Carbone Cancer Center Health Psychology Program