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Supporting someone affected by cancer

Tags: cancer , family

With nearly 30 years as a communications, body language and behaviour expert, Judi James was well placed to answer questions on ways to emotionally support a loved one with cancer.

With experience of cancer in her own family, Judi enriched her expert answers with a personal approach in a down-to-earth discussion on approaching the subject of cancer with friends or family members.

Here’s how she answered your questions:

A question from a blogger:My sister told me about my mum having suspected breast cancer on the phone, but my mum didn't want to come to the phone - what should I do? call her, turn up at the house?

Judi James:Hi, your mum is probably going through some mixed emotions that are confusing her as well as you. Could you call her when your sister has gone? If not why not pop round to her house, she might be wanting to protect you if she's upset but she'd also probably want to get your support. Some people don't like a lot of 'fuss' or drama. If your mum's like this there's still nothing wrong with popping round for tea and a chat!

Jen asked:How do you discuss cancer with children? It's a horrible subject for them to think about - but sometimes it feels like it is all around us and they need to know

Judi James:This is probably the toughest question and the best thinking I have read on the subject is to go with your gut reaction. If you have kids you'll know how different they are emotionally and in terms of their understanding or ability to understand these things. It's not always in terms of actual age, either. Some older children can be less mature than younger ones. I think children, even small children do pick up on non-verbal cues though, meaning what we feel we might be hiding they have already spotted. They'll read that forced smile and claim that 'everything's all right' and will often be imagining worse than reality. Talking to them and listening to them is vital, they will often have a thousand questions for you. You'll need to repeat things a lot as well, they grow up in terms of days and weeks and will often need to re-discuss or re-ask things you have already told them.

I think it’s important for anyone dealing with issues like this to realise that there's no such thing as 'right' or 'wrong' in the way that you try to handle it. There's no prefect or ideal way to talk about cancer with someone, so no worrying or feeling guilty if what you've said or done didn't come out of the 'expert' box. Muddling through is par for the course. I dropped many of the themes of advice I'd read about many times when I was in the same situation.

Caits asked:Hello. What sort of advice can I give a friend who has a family member with cancer?

Judi James:Hi Caits! I think your best role might be in being around to support your friend. When a family member has cancer the focus is quite rightly on them and that's where his/her energies will be used. But your friend will also probably be suppressing emotions like fear, or even confusing emotions like anger. This can be a very stressful role with relatives feeling guilty about their own emotions or even physical exhaustion. Having someone to one side of the action who can act like a mini support system can be a huge help when they want to step away from things for a while.

You could also recommend your friend keeps a journal. Writing an emotional diary on a daily basis can help offload and deal with difficult thoughts that might not be easy to discuss. The journal needs to be very honest and non-judgmental. This can often be more helpful than discussing feelings with a friend. Carers need their own carers! Being around for the odd shopping trip, phone chat or evening out can help a relative to cope better.

jrog asked:Hi. I struggle to know if I should talk to my friend about the cancer, or try to distract her. I want to be there for her but not sure how to support her best. What would you recommend?

Judi James:Hi jrog! I think you might need to do a touch of both. Ignoring her cancer might make it feel even more threatening and she might want to tell you all about her treatment and feelings. Bring it up by asking a couple of questions and then take her lead. People change too, she might want to talk one day but ignore it another. But there's no reason why normal chat about the kind of things you'd discuss as friends shouldn't continue.

jrog:Thanks Judi. Taking the lead from her seems like a good plan.

Judi James:It’s easy for us to think that the pressure is on us to do the speaking when someone we know has cancer, which is what makes us so worried about saying the right thing. We want to make it all go away for the person we love but of course we can't. Once we realise there's no such thing as the right thing to say we can start to listen instead. I've seen people with cancer listening to all sorts of clichés and advice and platitudes when in fact they really wanted someone to listen to how they felt and what was happening to them.

A lot of people find the cancer 'Round Robin' e-mails are useful, too. This is where the person with cancer posts regular bulletins to all their friends to update them on the more factual stuff about their treatment. This can help in terms of keeping in touch and it can get rid of the need for them to go through all the same information every time a friend calls.

spandia asked:Hi, is there any help/counselling available for carers ? My husband has extensive cancer and we also have a 3 year old, plus loads of things going on with the tenancy on the house. Just keeping on top of things day to day is hard and I think that it might be helpful to have someone from outside to talk to, but now we're down to one salary and not entitled to any state help I can't afford to pay for this myself ? Sorry also have a full time job...

Judi James:Oh Gosh Spandia, you really do have your hands full! This must be so stressful for you as well as exhausting. I think people often forget the problem of time management when someone is ill. Our lives are so full as it is with careers etc and those demands don't just go away when someone is ill. I'm not sure about counselling. Have you tried Macmillan Trust? Or have you asked your own GP if he/she can prescribe counselling for you?

spandia:I haven't yet as it's a nightmare trying to get an appointment at our doctors unless it's for my husband. The Macmillan nurse came round and looked at me and said you're doing really well and left as quickly as she could...

Judi James:This always worries me, it’s easy to give out solutions without finding out how those ideas pan out in reality. I always get annoyed when I hear expert advice touted as the ideal answer when I've already tried it and found it didn't work. I'm so sorry about the nurse, I did find them amazingly empathetic but I didn't need them for the kind of thing you do. Are you being assertive enough with your doctor? They should be pro-active with your kind of situation. You're currently providing a massive support system and if you go down they will have to step in. Please try to push for that appointment. I know we always get the idea there's a queue for appointments but I would see your needs as urgent.

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