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One of the most common problems when trying to help a person with cancer is knowing where to start. If you want to help but don’t know what to do first, here are some steps you can follow.
It’s important to first find out whether or not your help is needed and also exactly what is wanted. If you’re the parent or partner of someone with cancer, you may not need to ask them what they need.
Once you know if your help is wanted, you can offer to help with one of the things they need. It helps to be specific, so rather than saying, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do.’ you may want to ask, ‘Shall I do the shopping?’ or ‘Would you like me to pick up the children from school?’ You can also say that you’ll keep in touch to see if there are other things you can help with.
Some people find it hard to accept support even if they need it. This means that your offer may be refused. Although this may hurt your feelings, it’s worth remembering that this is not about some failing in you; it’s more about the their sense of pride and their wish to be independent.
To provide your relative or friend with the support you’ve been asked for, you may need some information about their illness. But you may only need basic information.
For example, you may need to ask:
Some people are very private and don’t want other people to know about their cancer. You may need to be very tactful in finding out what they need without talking about the actual illness. It’s natural to feel curious about a person’s illness, but it’s equally important to respect their privacy. If someone with cancer finds questions from visitors too intrusive, they may simply stop talking about anything personal.
On the other hand, your relative or friend may be open about their cancer. They may even ask you to go with them to an outpatient clinic to help them with questions they want to ask the doctor.
This applies to the rest of the family as well as the person who is ill. Remember their needs will vary as the situation changes. If the person has serious physical problems, these are some questions you may ask yourself:
You can check what’s needed by going through a day in the life of your relative or friend and thinking what they might need at each stage.
Begin by considering what you’re good at. You probably have many skills that will be helpful when it comes to supporting your relative or friend.
Even a simple gesture such as offering family members a lift to and from hospital can be helpful.
It may help to start small and just offer one or two practical things that you know your loved one has mentioned. That way, they won’t feel embarrassed or overwhelmed by the attention.
It’s important that you only offer to do what you can manage and don’t aim to do too much. It may need a little thought and some understanding of what your relative or friend needs or likes.
If you’ve offered to cook meals, remember that people with cancer often have a small appetite|. If they don’t eat what you’ve prepared, it’s not an insult to your cooking but simply an effect of their illness. You could try asking them if there’s any particular food that they enjoy. Putting small portions on a smaller plate may help, too.
Time is an important gift that you can give. It can help to spend regular time with your relative or friend. Think about the time you can realistically spend with them and try to be reliable. Remember that even a short visit on a regular basis will be something they can look forward to.
People with cancer are often encouraged to take someone with them when they see the doctor. People often feel anxious about seeing the doctor and forget the questions they were going to ask. If they ask you to be there with them, you could offer to help them prepare for the appointment. You may find the following suggestions useful:
The person may find it difficult to take in all the information they are given, especially if they’re given bad news. Sometimes the shock of this makes a person ‘freeze’, and they may be temporarily unable to talk or think clearly. This could be a good time to step in and, with their permission, ask the questions you know they wanted to ask.
Afterwards, when they’ve recovered, you can remind them of what the doctor said and discuss any choices your relative or friend may need to make about further treatment. You may also want to take some time to read through any written information you’ve been given. Remember that you can also contact our cancer support specialists| to discuss any treatment choices.
You may also find that you feel upset by the news given to your family member or friend. Supporting someone when you feel upset can be hard, so you may find it helpful to talk to one of the support organisations| to get support for yourself.
Like everyone else you have your limits. There’s always something more that could be done, but it’s impossible to do everything.
This is why it’s useful to involve other people where possible. For example, you could set up a rota to cook meals, drive someone to hospital or sit with someone who is seriously ill and bed-bound. You may be able to find people with skills you don’t have - for example, someone else may be able to do jobs such as gardening or DIY.
You may find it helpful to read our booklet Hello, and how are you? [PDF, 914 kb]| , which is a guide written by carers, for carers.
Content last reviewed: 1 July 2011
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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