How To Be Supportive To Cancer Patients, As Told By A Survivor

by Chris Moyer

Whenever the word "cancer" comes up in a conversation, people tend to feel uncomfortable because odds are, one of their family members or friends has suffered from it.

With more than 1.6 million estimated new cases that hit the US in 2013, it's no wonder you likely know someone who's been diagnosed with some form of cancer.

Despite the large number of cases, it seems that many people aren't fully prepared when a friend or family member brings back bad news from the oncology department.

After being diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma during my senior year in high school then plowing through four cycles of chemotherapy and finally being declared completely healthy, I have unique knowledge of the process and experience that comes with it.

Here are a few useful pieces of advice for those of you who have family members or friends who have cancer:

The Patient

First off, as a supporter of someone with cancer or a "caretaker," you need to know what he or she is thinking.

This, of course, doesn't apply to everyone because everyone reacts differently. I'll give you a description of my mindset at the time:

When I was diagnosed, there were multiple emotions going through my head.

The first emotion was surprise. No one expects to develop cancer.

Naturally, when someone is told he or she has it, it's a complete blow to the gut.

The next emotion, dread, was more prolonged and lasted the entirety of my first cycle. My dread developed out of fear of the unknown.

How long do I have to be treated? Will the chemotherapy hurt? What aspects of my life will change? All of these questions raced through my head.

Finally, during my final cycle, I felt very irritated. I was irritated with side effects, hospitals and medications, among many other small things that added up. I was ready to be finished, and although it was close, it wasn't close enough.

However, these weren't the only emotions I felt. I genuinely liked my doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, I developed friendships with the nurses and I was able to talk to other patients my age.

They were all great things, but I would've enjoyed them more if I weren't tired, sick and hairless.

Now that you understand my mindset, we can get into what you can do for your friends and family who are grappling with cancer.

Your Part

The best thing you can do for your friends or relatives is simply be there. There's nothing worse than facing the difficulties of chemotherapy by yourself.

You don't have to be right next to them 24/7, but you should at least hang out with them on a regular basis. Go to treatments with them and hang out at their houses when they're not in chemo.

With the large number of doctors visits that will inevitably be necessary, patients tend to become bored very quickly.

Going with them to appointments or treatments will surely boost their morale and make time pass faster.

It won't be a trip to Disneyland for you, but being pumped full of chemicals the average person can't pronounce on a regular basis isn't exactly Space Mountain, either.

Another important thing to remember is that your friends or family members are the same people they were before they were diagnosed.

They'll be more tired and sick, but they still enjoy and hate the things they did before. Treat them like you would normally treat them.

If you normally joke with them, joke with them. If you normally watch movies or play games with them, do it! It'll mean a lot to them, and they'll feel like less weird than they already do.

Communication is another huge aspect of support. Whether you're a family member or just a friend, the worst thing you can do is give them "advice."

Leave the advice-giving to those with the Ph.D.s. I can't tell you how many times people offered up their two cents about what I should be doing or how I should be feeling. Their motivation was great, but it accomplished nothing.

The best thing you can do is listen and ask questions about things other than cancer. Your friend or family member probably has been talking about cancer all day, and it gets old.

One last word of advice is to never assume your friends or family members are weak and discouraged, but don't assume they're not. This probably seems counter-intuitive, but hear me out:

Don't assume they're disheartened all the time because often, your friends or family members are doing okay.

Once they get used to the treatments and overall routine, they tend to relax. Don't be a downer.

On the flip side, just because they're doing well one day doesn't mean they're fine all of the time.

No matter much you get used to chemo, there are always rough days on the horizon. This is tough to hear, but it's a harsh reality that needs to be addressed.

Stay observant, and you'll be able to give them the best support you can.

Final Tips

With this knowledge, you'll be better prepared if someone you know is diagnosed with some form of cancer. As a bonus, here are some key phrases you should never say:

1. "I know how you feel."  (No, you don't. You have no idea.)

2. "You should think about doing..." (I'll consult my oncologist, thanks.)

3. "Don't worry." (Wow! I can't believe I didn't think of that before!)

4. "It can't be that bad." (Oh? Well, that's a relief.)

Avoid those phrases like the plague. The only thing you'll accomplish by using them is annoying your friends or family members. Instead, say things like, "If you want to talk, I'm a good listener," or, "Hey, I've been thinking about you. How are you?"

These kinds of things show you care and you're there for them.

Sometimes, less is more.