A loved one has just been diagnosed with cancer
Updated: Jan 17
A cancer diagnosis is devastating for all concerned. Naturally, the person receiving the diagnosis is likely to be feeling shocked, confused, anxious, scared and above all completely overwhelmed. But it can also be an extremely difficult time for friends and family too. We want to offer our help and support, but often, we don’t know how, and many of us will be concerned about saying the wrong thing..
My advice to anyone in this situation, is that no matter how difficult you are finding things, please don’t run away. Even if you do accidentally say the wrong thing, trust me, your loved one would be far more upset if you didn’t say anything at all and simply disappeared from their life. And it’s OK to tell them that you don’t know what to say - chances are they don’t know what to say either. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is truly life changing, it’s not written into any of our life plans and your friend or family member is likely to be feeling scared, lonely and overwhelmed. They will appreciate your support right now and phrases such as ‘I’m here for you’ and ‘we’ll do this together’ will mean an awful lot.
Obviously it’s vital that you follow through on these commitments and whilst there are no set rules and each relationship is different, it’s often the simple things that can mean the most. Many cancer patients have told me they really appreciated receiving text or email messages, letting them know that people were thinking of them, but making it clear that a reply wasn’t expected. And whilst I would stay away from the more traditional ‘Get Well Soon’ cards, many people have told me they appreciated a hand written card or note.
If your loved one is newly diagnosed there is likely to be a lot of waiting for the results of further tests in order to identify the tumour type, location, extent and stage, which will all help to determine a personalised treatment plan.
Waiting for these results is unbearable and your loved one may well be full of scenarios of doom and gloom. Knowing that you have cancer, but not yet knowing the prognosis, coupled with the uncertainty of what treatment will be needed, is a truly awful period.
Whilst there isn’t much we can do to speed up test results, you could certainly help your loved one take their mind off things and help them to keep calm. The best piece of advice I’ve heard in this situation is to avoid the urge to self-diagnose – help your loved one stay away from Dr Google! Until they know the results of tests, there really is no point in worrying themselves unnecessarily about future scenarios that simply may not apply.
Another important way you can help your loved one is to offer to attend medical appointments with them. Their care team will be sharing a lot of information and the terminology and language is likely to be unfamiliar. It can be helpful for your loved one to take someone along to take notes, ask questions if appropriate and generally help them remember all that was said.
Alternatively, you could offer to be your loved one’s ‘nominated person’. Telling different people repeatedly about a cancer diagnosis can be emotionally draining for your loved one, so you could offer to be a single point of contact to keep friends and family informed.
But my overriding advice is to simply be there for your loved one, no matter what that looks and feels like for your individual relationship. It may well be difficult and even distressing or uncomfortable at times, but no matter how difficult it is for us to watch our loved ones suffer, no one should face cancer alone and now, more than ever before, your loved one needs their support team behind them.