The diagnosis of cancer can be devastating for the patient, their family and friends. You may like to be involved with helping and supporting any of them. What you can offer will depend on your relationship with the person, their needs, your own abilities and your availability.
Help can include practical assistance and/or emotional support. Having guidelines to work with may help you from feeling overwhelmed. Understanding what is happening can assist you to respond in a useful way.
What can I do?
Resist the temptation to ‘take over’. People still want to lead their own lives and stay as independent as possible. Having some control over their own lives can help them. Start with small, practical things that the person might not be able to do for themselves.
The things you may do to help will certainly change as conditions change, so be flexible and learn on the job. Be specific about your availability and what you can do, for example:
“I will be free to visit every Saturday.”
“Would you like me to mow the lawn?”
Just saying “Can I help?” may not be enough. Identify what you are good at and would like to offer.
- prepare a meal or help around the house
- look after children or pets
- provide transport to the hospital or shops
- obtain information, videos or books
- entertain, prepare special treats, have fun
- help in the garden
- accompany on a walk or give a massage
- offer to coordinate any giving of information to family/friends
Much of our self image comes from the roles we play – parent, spouse, worker or friend. Illness can interfere with these roles but sometimes the most valuable help you can give is to call on people’s skills and experiences and to reassure them that they are still valued.
What can I say?
Breaking the ice and making the first contact may be the hardest part. “How are you today” can be a good opening that will allow the other person to then take the lead. Tell the person you have had them in your thoughts.
Let the other person dictate when and where they want to talk and what they want to talk about. Talking is the best method of communication that we have. Simply talking about distress may help to relieve it.
You do not always have to be cheerful. Thoughts that a person tries to shut out may eventually do harm, allow them to express their feelings of anger, fear and depression.
Listening is a great way to help them and is often more important than speaking. Although people need to talk about what they are going through, equally they may want to hear about the outside world and be distracted and entertained for a while.
Don’t be afraid of silence. Sharing silence can be very comforting.
Avoid giving general advice unless it’s asked for. Do not give medical advice but suggest instead that medical concerns are discussed with the doctor or nurse.
Do not lie or give unrealistic assurances. When considering how you can help ask yourself the following questions:
- does the person want my help?
- have I asked them what they would like?
- what sort of help have they requested?
- what can I do?
- what do I have time to do?
- is the help I am offering appropriate to my relationship with that person?
- who else is available to help?
- how will the rest of their family react to my involvement?
- is professional help needed?
- are there any language, cultural, gender or religious differences that might aid or interfere with my help?
Do not undertake to do things that you cannot carry through.
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