Support from family and friends is critical to cancer patients going through treatment, but what should that support look like? Many of us worry we won't know what to say or do, or worse, that we'll do the wrong thing.
A survey by Cancer Treatment Centers of America found that friends and family offer primary support for people diagnosed with cancer. According to the 2003 survey, only 1 percent of male and 4 percent of female cancer patients turned to organized support groups as their main source of support.
"When people are diagnosed with cancer, support from friends and family is often the key to helping them endure the rigorous medical treatments and emotional stress that may accompany their diagnosis," says Robin Adler, director of mind-body medicine at Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center. "Most people want to offer that support, but they're at a loss for exactly what to do or where to begin."
At the clinic Adler counsels patients and their families, leads support and relaxation groups, provides community-education workshops and links patients to needed resources in the community. She says friends and family can help by keeping lines of communication open and being a stable and reliable source of support in the midst of change.
Here are her tips for friends and family who want to help but aren't sure how:
* Be yourself. Don't try too hard to do or say "the right" things; just be sincere in your desire to lend a hand.
* Listen. Sometimes it's better to be patient and listen than to start a conversation. Remember to talk about all the things you used to talk about before cancer.
* Honestly share your feelings of fear, anger or sadness, but try not to overburden your friend or loved one. If you need to, take time for yourself.
* Provide stability. Help your friend with cancer adjust to new routines while continuing as many regular activities as possible to maintain a sense of normalcy. Assure your friend that he or she can depend on you.
* Adapt to changing roles. While it's important for a person with cancer to keep a routine, understand that family dynamics might change. For example, one parent might have to take on more childcare duty. Respond with practical solutions, like organizing help from friends.
* If a friend has cancer, ask him or her for suggestions on how to help. If your friend is getting many such requests, offer to coordinate efforts. Be alert to your friend's needs - be it childcare or housecleaning - and remember that some people have a hard time asking for help.
* Be prepared to communicate with health care professionals. Dealing with the health care system can be confusing, intimidating and time-consuming. Your loved one may appreciate your stepping up. Begin by educating yourself about the patient's condition. When you meet with health practitioners, bring a list of questions, ask for clarification and be appropriately assertive.
* Help a cancer patient feel in control. Let them decide for themselves if they're too weak to clean the house, cook dinner or go out.
* Spend time with your friend. Just having you there can be comfort enough.
* Remember to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise and take part in enjoyable activities. Find your own emotional support from friends, co-workers, your church, support groups, a professional counselor.
Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center is the only place in the Pacific Northwest where medical oncologists work side by side with natural medicine practitioners. This integrated approach to cancer care combines innovative medical treatment with naturopathy, mind-body medicine, acupuncture, Chinese medicine and other complementary therapies. For more information, visit www.seattle cancerwellness.com.