Tips on supporting a loved one through cancer

This year, National Cancer Survivors Day is celebrated on June 2.  This is a day that recognizes cancer survivors and their loved ones. A day in which people share their journeys and experiences with others to give hope and inspire. But most importantly, it’s a day that raises awareness of a disease that has a major impact on society in the United States and across the world.

A person is considered a cancer survivor from the day of diagnosis throughout the rest of their life.  Cancer survivors face challenges during and after treatment.  As a nurse navigator for cancer patients who has been working in the field for over 15 years, I am sure most of you know someone touched by the diagnosis of cancer.

READ MORE: Conquering cancer: What’s next?

Throughout my career, I’ve seen many people desperately wanting to help when a loved one is touched by cancer. It’s a challenging time. Drawing from my experiences, here are a few tips to keep in mind along the journey of cancer:

  • Treat your friend or family member the same as you would normally. They are the same person they have always been.  Try not to let the new diagnosis alter your relationship.
  • Try to explore your own feelings and emotions ahead of time. It is very difficult to hear that a loved one has cancer.  By processing your own feelings, you can better focus on your friend or family member.
  • Listen to their thoughts and concerns. A cancer diagnosis is life changing.  Your loved one will be trying to establish a “new normal”.
  • Educate yourself. Take time to learn about and prepare for the cancer type that your friend or family member has experienced. Side effects and treatment results vary. Cancer treatments are not all the same.  For example, a person treated for breast or prostate cancer will experience completely different side effects than someone with head and neck cancer.
  • Learn about the diagnosis. What is predicted to be a significant side effect of the cancer or treatment?  Head and neck cancer treatments result in significant swallowing difficulties and severe dry mouth.  It can take quite some time for a person treated for head and neck cancer to complete a meal, if they are able to eat at all.  Consider other ways of support rather than bringing them food, like spending time with them or helping with chores. Do not be afraid to ask how you can help them.
  • Be patient. Keep in mind that long after treatment is complete, side effects can continue. Head and neck cancer can cause some patients to dread going out to dinner or participating in a shared meal.  Often their tastes have changed and they no longer enjoy the foods they used to.  Or as mentioned, a meal can take a long time to get through and friends and family have completed their meal long before they have.  Sharing a meal is such a big part of our culture.  Consider alternative ways to bond and connect.
  • Be supportive. Often, the most difficult time for some survivors is after treatment is over. The routine of actively treating the cancer is complete. Waiting for the tests and imaging to determine if the cancer is gone is quite scary. When treatment is completed, survivors are no longer surrounded by their treatment team and can sometimes feel abandoned.  There is often a perception from friends and family that treatment is over and life should go back to normal. Recovery from treatment can take up to a year or more.  It is at this time when patients feel like “nothing is being done” that they may need you the most.

READ MORE: Patient advisor helps fellow cancer survivors and patients

Life does go on and survivors have the beautiful gift of being here to live it – probably with more intensity and appreciation for the little things in life. If you’re a survivor, be kind to yourself and give yourself, your family, and those around you time. Facing your feelings and learning how to cope with them is important. It took time to adjust to cancer, you should also give yourself time to adjust to life after cancer. But don’t forget, you’re a survivor and are now stronger than you were before. You will get through this.


Jacqueline Shanahan is a nurse navigator at the DeCesaris Cancer Institute at Anne Arundel Medical Center. She can be reached at 443-481-5801.

Originally published June 4, 2018. Last updated May 22, 2019.