I’m writing this in the aftermath. My Mum received a cancer diagnosis last autumn and we’re only now surfacing for a bit of air. One in two people are said to suffer from cancer, which makes it all the more important to be prepared in case a loved one receives a diagnosis in the future. Even if it’s your best friend’s family member that has the diagnosis, believe me, your friend will need the support too.
When Mum was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the news floored me. Luckily I had some great support from my close friends, and virtual support from my Mum’s family, which saw me through things, and which inspired me to write about the things that helped.
What I noticed during my Mum’s diagnosis and treatment was that some people found it very difficult to talk about what was happening. It really surprised me. The situation was approached a bit like grief.
All of my friends close to me were extremely empathetic towards my Mum’s situation, always asking after her, checking in to see if I was OK. That really helped, more than I can tell you. Also, some colleagues and people on social media were really good at being supportive and not afraid to ask after her. (So thank you if you’re reading this and that was you, it meant a lot.)
And so, I had to write this post because it made me think that perhaps some people might not be aware of what it’s actually like, that support really is needed to cope with the roller coaster of a cancer diagnosis. Perhaps others just might not know the best way to approach it, to ‘say the right thing’.
There were certain things that really supported the situation for Mum, and also for me too. I’ve worked for the Big C as a comms consultant and case study writer now for nearly three years. So it’s strange to be writing this, being on the other side of the fence for a change, but I can safely say I have an even more rounded view of what it’s like for someone dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
How to support a person with cancer or their loved one
Naturally, a cancer diagnosis doesn’t just impact the person with the diagnosis. It can be really tough for those closest to the person with cancer. They are probably trying to be strong for the person who is unwell. They will have to continue working, caring for their own family yet likely to be caring and supporting their loved one with cancer, as well as trying to process their own emotions and grief.
I think one of the biggest most important thing to remember is to bring it up with your friend or family member. Just like when you’re supporting a friend with grief of a loved one, it’s important to acknowledge it.
Many don’t know what to say when someone has been diagnosed with cancer and so they often end up not saying anything or not very much. What’s helpful is saying something, anything, just acknowledging it and checking in, even a simple “How are you guys doing? Thinking of you lots at the moment. I’m here if you need to talk.”
I can’t take credit for most of these tips – they are the things my friends did that helped me…I think these ‘tips’ are useful for when supporting a friend who has a family member with cancer, but it is also good advice for when supporting the person with cancer too!
Check in regularly: Do check in on your friend. A text message twice a week to assess how they are coping and also to check on any latest developments with tests and the treatment plan.
Moral Support: If it’s someone you know very well who has cancer, they may need some support attending or driving to hospital appointments. It’s always good to check. If you do attend appointments to support someone with cancer, try to distract your friend or family member with positive things to lift their spirits. Though try to tune into their mood to see what feels most helpful for them.
Food Made with Love: While your friend or family member is undergoing treatment, they probably won’t feel well-enough to cook for themselves for a little while, so now would be a good time to offer to make healthy food to help with recovery. Perhaps see if you can involve other friends too. Always check first about their diet because many cancer patients will be avoiding sugar, and bowel cancer patients have a very specific diet before, during and after treatment.
Expect silences: Do expect your friend to disappear now and then. Social media is often the last place they will want to be. They probably won’t have the time to go out socialising or meet for a coffee to chat about things. Though they might. Everyone is different. Just accept they may go quiet on you, and that’s OK. If they have gone quiet, you don’t need to be quiet too. Just a short email or message to say: I’m thinking of you, I’m here if you’d like to chat.
Friend Mail: You might like to send your friend a card and/or a small token to show them you are thinking of them. A couple of my friends sent some really sweet things in the post including macaroons (for my Mum), cards, post cards with poems on, and the lovely Vicki form Honest Mum send me a gratitude journal. Those tokens and well-wishes really meant a lot to both me and Mum.
Diarise the tough days: Ask your friend when they expect to find out test results and ask when the big appointments are – when chemotherapy, operations or radiotherapy starts. Try to send them a message on those days, they might be especially tough.
Free support: You might like to find out if you have a local cancer charity that can support your friend and their family. I’m very lucky here in Norfolk to have the support of Big C who offer cancer patients and their families free counselling, massages, reiki and reflexology, support groups, not to mention many other supportive services and advice on things like nutrition and financial support.
Your friend might not know about these kind of services available to them as they are likely to be too busy to begin to even think about it. If it feels appropriate and you think they might benefit, consider signposting them to their local cancer charity and free services available to them.
Complimentary Therapies: While Mum was going through treatment I used reiki on her to help with relaxation and healing. It was a godsend to have this tool at my fingertips. But don’t worry if there isn’t time to learn how to practise reiki, you can also often find reiki practitioners that not only operate out of a clinic that will be happy to treat from your home.
It’s also possible to ask for distance reiki, which means you don’t need to leave your home. We were very lucky to have the support of our Reiki Share group here in Norwich, whereby individual members of the group kindly sent Mum and our family reiki. It really made a big difference.
In addition to that, my good friend Claire, practises Bio-Energy Healing which is another form of energy healing. She’s based in London but was able to send Mum distance healing at a designated time. This helped Mum to prepare for her treatment and she reported back that she felt incredible peace and calmness after the session. (I’ll be blogging about this particular therapy soon so do keep your eyes peeled if alternative therapies interest you – it’s an incredible technique).
Lastly, Mum also had acupuncture before her treatment began. There’s actually a Cancer Clinic at Treat Norwich, that offers specific treatments to support those before and after treatment.
Reiki and Bio Energy would be my suggested ‘top two’ therapies for during treatment and while the individual is weak and needing bed-rest, because it’s possible to send distance healing with both and doesn’t involve any effort on the patient’s part.
Creative Writing Therapy
If you found this post helpful, you might also be interested in a blog post I wrote for Big C a few months ago about how to use writing therapy to improve your wellbeing.
I’ve found creative writing a really helpful and therapeutic tool in the past. Although I’ve always enjoyed penning short stories, I only started experimenting with poetry while I was pregnant. After the birth, I realised that it was also a manageable form when you have less time on your hands. Around six months after having my little girl I started suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. However, it was those challenging times that brought a wellspring of creativity and inspiration. I was just too exhausted to do very much about it at the time. There’s more about how to use creative writing to help support you through the dark days. See the link above!
I’d love to hear about any experiences you’ve had with cancer. Whether it was dealing with a diagnosis yourself or supporting a loved one with their diagnosis. How did you cope? Leah x