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When someone you love is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness such as cancer, it’s common to feel helpless, or unsure of what to do or say to show your love and support. And it can be hard to know the right way to respond there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. We asked Dr. Jon Hunter, who works with breast cancer patients as Head of the Consultation-Liaison Service at Mount Sinai Hospital and of Psychosocial Services in Mount Sinai’s Marvelle Koffler Breast Center, to share some of the insights he’s gleaned about how families and friends can best support loved ones going through cancer treatment. Here are his top 4 tips:

  1. Don’t lose the person in the cancer. Cancer can be disempowering: patients often can’t work, they may have surgery that affects their sense of themselves physically and they will almost certainly endure treatments that make them feel sick and/or tired. The demands of coping with these changes can rise to the forefront, but it’s important to remember that your loved one is still an individual with a unique personality, life experiences, sense of humour, etc. Second-guessing or overprotecting them can deprive them of what little control and autonomy they have left. They still have other roles — parent, friend, sibling, employee — to engage in, and many patients want to have the freedom to take on those roles and “be themselves”, rather than being limited by their illness.

  2. Don’t assume you know exactly what they’re going through. Everyone experiences illness differently. Some people want to become advocates for the cause; others prefer to cope with their illness privately. Some embrace the “fight” against their illness; others don’t want to be defined by their cancer and try to focus as much as possible on the other people and activities in their lives that are meaningful to them. Even if you’ve had the same cancer, or a similar illness, it is a mistake to assume you know what your loved one is feeling. Give them the space to define this life-changing experience and their response to it on their own terms.

  3.  Offer to come with them to hospital appointments. For patients, it can be hard to take in new information about diagnosis and treatment options and make a decision that’s going to be right for them. It’s helpful to have someone with them who can help them to remember new information clearly so they can be sure they understand their options and what the ramifications of their decision will be. This kind of support is especially important for non-English speakers, who may face language and/or cultural barriers that make it more difficult for them to understand what the doctor is telling them, or to ask questions. But it’s important to remember that you are there in a supportive capacity; don’t make things more difficult for the patient by being aggressive, complaining about wait times or staff or otherwise drawing attention to yourself.

  4. Ask how you can help. From day to day, your loved one may feel differently about their illness, both physically and emotionally. One day they may want to talk, but on another day they may wish to simply spend time together without the burden of making conversation or entertaining someone else. Ask what they want or need, and listen to what they say. Be open to communication and special requests, and realize that what helps your loved one feel supported and cared for may change from one day to the next, or as their illness or treatment progresses.

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