What To Say to a Loved One With A Serious Illness

Here are some tips for being that supportive person that we often strive to be:


This is a challenge when a person we love faces a life-threatening illness. It is important to listen without judging and without "cheerleading". We are often tempted to say "you will be fine" when we hear scary or sad thoughts. Your ability to sit with someone who is sharing those feelings can be the most significant contribution that you will make to your loved one's well being.

Stay Connected

Cancer treatment is often lengthy; people with cancer often express that "people don't call me anymore" after the initial crisis of diagnosis. Checking in regularly over the long haul is tremendously helpful.

Give advice when you are asked

You might offer to research the diagnosis, treatment, or clinical trials. That could be helpful, as the information is often overwhelming. What is not helpful is saying "You ought to try...."

Educate yourself about cancer

CancerCare and other established organizations have helpful literature and user friendly websites that provide detailed information about cancer and treatment. www.cancercare.org

Remember the caregiver

This is usually the spouse, partner, parent or adult child of the person with cancer who takes on necessary tasks such as driving to treatment, arranging medical appointments, and providing emotional support. This person often also takes on the role formerly handled by the person with cancer, managing additional household chores and responsibilities.

Be specific about the help you can offer

Saying "call me if you need something" can put your loved one in an uncomfortable position. It is better to say "May I walk your dog every morning?" or "Let me take you to radiation on Tuesdays".

Keep things normal

Often we want to make life easier for someone dealing with a serious illness by "doing things" for them. It is a way of feeling useful at a time when we feel helpless but it's just as important to be sensitive to that person's wish to hang curtains, continue working (or not), or cook dinner. For a person with cancer, having the ability to do normal "pre-cancer" tasks can lessen the sense that cancer is taking over one's life.

Be receptive to your loved one's needs when treatment is over

Often this is the time that people with cancer realize the enormity of what they have been through (prior to this they are deeply involved and distracted by the "work" of getting to treatment, tests, etc.) At this time your loved one may not need rides to treatment, but will still need your receptive ears.

Support your loved one's treatment decisions

This includes end-of-life choices when treatment is not successful. While you may be in a position to share decision-making, ultimately it is your loved one's body and spirit that bear the impact of the cancer. If your loved one chooses to stop treatment, this is a time when emotional support is especially crucial. Listening, once again, can be the greatest gift you have to give.v

CancerCare's staff of professional oncology social workers can help you cope with a diagnosis of cancer. Their social workers offer people with cancer and their loved ones individual counseling and support groups via the telephone, online, or in person. CancerCare also offers education, practical help and referrals to other resources that can help you cope with a cancer diagnosis.

Reprinted with permission from CancerCare, a national nonprofit organization that provides free, professional support services for anyone affected with cancer. Call 1-800-813-HOPE (4673) or visit www.cancercare.org

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