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How to help others cope with cancer

Published On: Feb 25 2013 07:39:12 AM EST   Updated On: Mar 04 2013 11:57:39 AM EST

Coping with cancer

A cancer diagnosis comes with many challenges, not only for the person diagnosed but also for family and friends. It can be hard to know how to comfort someone you care for.

Ed Cassel of Bethlehem Township, Northampton Co., volunteers his time to drive cancer patients to doctor visits.

He says it's his way of honoring what cancer gave him and what it took away.


Cassel says, "You look at things differently. For me it's time. I look at how I use my time what I want to do with my time."

He still has difficulty talking about the thyroid cancer he faced in 2006. He says it is difficult to sum up his emotions and while he easily talks with people going through cancer now he says everyone is different.

"Some will not want people around, some will not want to talk. Others will want to talk. So you have to see where they are in the process and how they feel if they want to talk about it," Cassel said.

Experts say it can be human nature to distance yourself from someone when they become ill because it is so difficult to face them and their uncertain prognosis.

 The American Cancer Society can help.

Karen Schiavone of the American Cancer Society said, "We understand this is a very difficult diagnosis, so call us. We also have a website, so you can go there too."

Experts say to listen to someone who has cancer and let them guide you. And suggest specific ways to help like running an errand.

Ed said cancer patients need us. The American Cancer Society has a toll-free number for anyone to call looking for help with any issues surrounding a cancer diagnosis. That number is 800-227-2345.

Here is a quick list of guidelines from the American Cancer Society for what you can do to help a friend with cancer:

Send or prepare a meal. Arrange a schedule of meal delivery.

Offer to help with child care. Arrange a schedule of day care pick-ups.

Offer a ride to and from treatment appointments.

Help run errands.

Offer to take phone calls if your friend is feeling tired and needs to rest.

Coordinate visits by groups, or coordinate sending cards, flowers, or gifts.

Honor your friend by making contributions to related charities, organizing blood drives, or making special efforts in their name.

You’re not alone if you don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer. You might not know the person very well, or you may have a close relationship.

The most important thing you can do is mention the situation in some way that feels comfortable for you.

You can show interest and concern, you can express encouragement, or you can offer support.

Sometimes, the simplest expressions of concern are the most meaningful. And sometimes just listening is the most helpful thing you can do.

Respond from your heart! Here are some ideas:

“I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”

“I’m sorry to hear that you are going through this.”

“How are you doing?”

“If you would like to talk about it, I’m here.”

“Please let me know how I can help.”

“I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

Also: Take your cues from the person with cancer. Some people are very private while others will openly talk about their illness. Respect the person’s need to share or their need for privacy.

Let them know you care.

Respect their decisions about how the cancer will be treated, even if you disagree.

Include the person in usual plans or social events. Let them be the one to tell you if the commitment is too much to manage.

Listen without always feeling that you have to respond. Sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs the most.

Expect the person with cancer to have good days and bad days, emotionally and physically.

Keep your relationship as normal and balanced as possible. Greater patience and compassion are called for during times like these, and your friend should continue to respect your feelings, as you respect their feelings.

Offer to help in concrete, specific ways.

Here are things to avoid:

Don't offer advice they don’t ask for, or be judgmental.

Don't feel you must put up with serious displays of temper or mood swings. You shouldn’t accept disruptive or abusive behavior just because someone is ill.

Don't take things too personally. It’s normal for the person with cancer to be quieter than usual, to need time alone, and to be angry at times.

Don't be afraid to talk about the illness.

Don't always feel you have to talk about cancer. The person with cancer may enjoy conversations that don’t involve the illness.

Don't be afraid to hug or touch your friend if that was a part of your friendship before the illness.

Don't be patronizing. (Try not to use a “How sick are you today?” tone when asking how the person is doing.)

Don't tell the person with cancer, “I can imagine how you must feel,” because you really can’t.