September 17, 2018/Cancer Care & Prevention

When Someone You Love Has Cancer: 9 Practical Tips + Insights

How to help your family member or friend

When Someone You Love Has Cancer: 9 Practical Tips + Insights

Your family member or best friend has been diagnosed with cancer. Life, as you know it, has forever changed.


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Those who have cancer ride an emotional roller coaster as they navigate doctors, tests and procedures. What should you know to be most helpful to them?

“It’s important for your loved one to hear, ‘I get it. This is hard for you,’” says psychosocial oncologist Joel Marcus, PsyD.

Along with compassion, he shares nine other insights and tips for supporting your loved one:

1. Take side effects seriously.

Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery — no cancer treatment is fun. Hair loss, nausea, skin and body changes, and dry mouth cause real distress. “Your loved one may see them as outward signs of inner disease,” explains Dr. Marcus.

2. Nip symptoms in the bud.

Urge your loved one to tell the oncologist promptly about pain, nausea, vomiting, numbness or tingling. “Symptoms gather steam like a boulder rolling down a hill; the doctor can help ‘stop it at the top,’” he says.

3. ‘Chemo brain’ is real.

We now know that chemotherapy affects short-term memory, which triggers great anxiety. Remind your loved one to stay in the moment by breathing deeply. Relaxing the mind will ease memory retrieval. Games like chess and Sudoku can also exercise the mental muscles.

4. Stock the ‘chemo bag.’

A warm blanket will keep your loved one cozy in the chilly chemotherapy room. Help them while away the hours by contributing an engrossing book, some great music or a binge-worthy show to their chemo bag.

5. Don’t stress about diet.

“A healthy lifestyle is key, but so is quality of life,” says Dr. Marcus. Is a vegan diet OK? No problem, as long as nutritional needs are met. Can’t live without sweets? No need to. Just focus on a balanced diet. Is meat safe to eat? It may well be (as long as you don’t overdo red meat); check with your oncologist.


6. Encourage physical activity.

Exercise is critical for health. Suggest your loved one try yoga (doubly helpful because of its mind-body connection). Join them in doing an activity they love — dancing, taking walks — when they have the energy.

7. Sexual problems are fixable.

When cancer affects your partner, it can have a chilling effect on body image and the ability to respond. But “sex is vital. It’s our most intimate form of communication,” says Dr. Marcus. Tell the oncologist; many sexual issues are easily fixed, he says.

8. Help the young plan ahead.

If your loved one is an adolescent, ask about their plans for a family in the future, he advises. If treatment might threaten fertility, ask the doctor about sperm or egg banking. And reassure teens they’ll be able to date, enjoy relationships and marry like anyone else.

9. Consider a clinical trial.

Immunotherapy is changing the face of cancer treatment. If your loved one’s oncologist suggests a trial of immunotherapy, listen carefully, he says. Every helpful cancer drug has gone through the same clinical trials process.

“Keep communicating honestly with your loved ones. Be clear about your thoughts and feelings,” urges Dr. Marcus.

Showing up in practical, heartfelt ways can make life a little easier for your loved one on their cancer journey.

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