What does ‘supporting’ a cancer patient look like? 4 dos and don’ts
If you know someone going through cancer treatment, you might feel eager to help, but not quite sure what to do.
Should you offer them a ride to their next appointment? Have a meal delivered to them? Or, just text them to see how they’re doing at a time when you know they’re at the hospital?
For advice on how best to support your loved one, we spoke with senior social work counselor Vanessa Garcia. Here are four “dos and don’ts” she offered.
DO: Ask your loved ones what they need most, then do that.
Sometimes, being supportive means acting as a gatekeeper: whether by answering the phone, fielding visitors, or updating friends and relatives when a cancer patient doesn’t have the energy to do it for themselves.
Other times, it could mean bringing them something warm to drink or just listening to them grouse for a few minutes about the things they can’t do yet, whether it’s because they’re still too exhausted from chemotherapy, or recovering from surgery.
“The best allies are the ones who listen well and respect the patient’s wishes at the moment,” says Garcia. “So, my biggest suggestion is to regularly ask, ‘What do you need from me right now?’ And then do that.”
DON’T: Assume you already know what they want.
There’s no one “right” way to get through cancer treatment, and everyone’s needs are different. They can also vary not just from month to month, but from hour to hour and minute to minute. So, don’t just assume that what someone wanted from you last week will still be what they want from you today.
“Sometimes, spouses think to themselves, ‘Oh, I just know they’re going to want pizza tonight. They always want pizza on Fridays. They LOVE pizza.’ Then, they end up being surprised and hurt when the pizza arrives and their loved one goes, ‘Oh, God. I just CAN’T eat pizza tonight,’” Garcia says. “So, try to remain flexible and open to suggestions. And don’t try to read minds. Ask.”
DO: Empower your loved ones with choices, when possible.
Having cancer can make you feel powerless. So, giving patients a say in their care is a good way to help them reclaim it. That’s why Garcia encourages caregivers to remind their loved ones often that their opinions matter and to solicit them frequently, especially at critical decision-making moments.
“Adults tend to make all the decisions, especially with pediatric patients,” she notes. “So, it’s important to give them as many choices as possible.”
That could mean something as simple as asking what time they’d prefer to make an appointment, so as not to miss out on a much-anticipated activity. It could also mean something as complex as determining which treatment to pursue if they’re presented with more than one option.
“You want be a partner in their care, not a benevolent dictator,” Garcia adds.
“If someone tears up after opening an exceptionally thoughtful gift or hugs you tightly after discovering you ran their car through the wash without asking, they’re showing you their preferences,” says Garcia. “Make mental notes about what’s meaningful to them for future reference, and apply it later.”
Consider your loved one’s history, too, and what they’ve shared with you about times they felt well-loved or supported.
“All of these things can help you do better and be supportive in the ways that are most meaningful,” says Garcia.