5 ways you can support someone with cancer according to a psychotherapist

In partnership with
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Whether it’s practical or emotional, trying to support someone who has cancer can be tricky for obvious reasons. Here’s some expert advice as well as some firsthand experience…

When Nicola Mendelsohn, Vice President for EMEA for Facebook, told her mum she had been diagnosed with follicular lymphoma (an incurable blood cancer), her mum thought she was joking.

She was basically symptom-free and she describes the weekend after being told as the worst weekend of her life. But once she had digested it (as much as you can), she decided to carry on working through treatment and continues to do so today.

You can listen to why she made that decision and how she has chosen to live with her diagnosis in our Nobody Told Me… episode below:

Talking to Mendelsohn highlights how different people handle life-altering news like cancer, and also how varied we as loved ones feel we can support them.

With that in mind, we spoke to Liz Carruthers, Senior Oncology Psychotherapist in Adult Psychological Support at The Royal Marsden about what can help the most:

1. Help maintain balanced activity in their life 

“For most people, cancer and its treatment will cause a significant disruption to daily routine. Coronavirus and the need to shield or self-isolate will probably make it even more difficult, or impossible, to do some of the things they want to do.

This may have left them feeling that they don’t have much control over their lives at the moment so it can be helpful to try and support them in developing a daily routine that’s adjusted to the current situation – helping regain a sense of control.

Help them identify activities that are meaningful to them (not others) and that give them a sense of Achievement, Connection and Enjoyment (‘ACE’). When you know what will give them that, you can help organise doing those things.”

2. Be there emotionally 

“Listen to your friend or relative without feeling the need to respond with answers, as it’s important they feel they can confide in someone and speak without judgement. Try to avoid false reassurance when news is tough.

Spend time with them (virtually during lockdown or in-person if government guidelines permit), talking about their situation, as well as doing things they enjoy.

We’re social beings who need some connection with others, so try and encourage them to do activities that involve other people who they like and trust.

Phone calls and video chats are a great way of staying in touch during lockdown, and you could try to find alternative ways of doing things with them that you might have done in the past (e.g. a ‘virtual’ film night or dinner, online quizzes or boardgames).”

3. Be there practically

“Visit them wherever possible, email them, text them, help them plan and prepare for appointments, accompany them to appointments when you’re allowed to do so. Offer breaks to carers and ask how often they want visits, and offer help with practical activities such as laundry or picking up kids from school.”

4. Signpost to support services

“Help them with coming to terms with their diagnosis by signposting them to other support services, which will help you as a relative or friend, too. 

Patients can be referred to pyschological support services (at The Royal Marsden you can be referred by any member of your Royal Marsden health care team or you can self-refer by contacting the department and asking for a self-referral form). 

After two years of active treatment, people may be able to access local psychological services via their GP or self-referral to IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) services which offer National Institute for Health and Care and Excellence recommended therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for common problems involving stress, anxiety and depression.”

5. Look after your own emotional health 

“People have different ways of showing their feelings when someone close to them has cancer.

The person with cancer may find it hard to tell others and it’s their decision when to share their diagnosis. But if you are close to them, you may also need support.

Make sure you find time to talk with others, take time for exercise, establish a good routine and engage in activities which you enjoy.

It is important to acknowledge the limitations of telephone or virtual support at the current time but learn not to take things personally and know you’re always able to offer empathy.

You won’t have all the answers, and nor can you always reassure the person with cancer that it’s all going to be fine. But you can listen, you can care and you can stay in touch.”

Nobody Told Me…’ is Stylist’s podcast exploring the personal life lessons of brilliant women in their own words. Season two is brought to you in partnership with Clinique, who for over 50 years have been empowering women through great skin care backed by dermatologist expertise.