Kerry Schrader got through breast cancer — diagnosis, surgery, and treatment — but the experience was tough on both her physical and mental health, especially as an entrepreneur with a newly launched business.
Schrader, who lives in Birmingham, Ala., says three things helped her get through her ordeal: Her faith, even though the diagnosis shook it in the early days; her family and friends, who encouraged her, offered emotional support, and took care of practical needs; and Mixtroz, an event management software business she had recently started with her daughter.
Today, Schrader has been cancer-free for four years and is doing well. “I am thankful that my cancer was merely a pit stop on a beautiful journey of a long and healthy life,” she tells HuffPost Canada. However, getting to that point is going to look different for every cancer patient.
If you know someone who is facing a cancer diagnosis, you may be wondering how to provide the proper support system to help them get through this frightening and debilitating journey.
Below is some advice from those who know, including both healthcare professionals and people who have supported a loved one during their illness.
Take care of their everyday needs
Instead of asking someone who is dealing with cancer what they need, offer specific help or plan things you know will be necessary.
Susan Stitt, a marketing director in Georgia, was a caregiver for her best friend Cathy Bexley, who died of breast cancer a decade ago at 53 years old. Some of that support was practical, like organizing a food drop-off with neighbours and making her bedroom more comfortable.
Bringing food, as Stitt and her neighbours did, is valuable, Rebecca Ogle, a licensed clinical social worker in Illinois tells HuffPost Canada. She also recommends offering transportation to appointments and attending these appointments with your loved one. “Sometimes just having someone there for moral support makes a huge difference,” Ogle says.
If there are multiple people available to help, offer to coordinate your loved one’s needs — set up a Google calendar or a Doodle schedule to organize meals, rides, childcare, and company. “Asking for help and organizing things is hard for people to do in general, let alone when they’re in a lot of pain,” Ogle says.
Be there for them after treatment
Sometimes, being willing to be there — even during the difficult times — is the most important thing you can do, says Dawn Veselka, a Florida radiation therapist and co-founder of the Chronic Warrior Collective.
“All too often, friends or family members stay away because they don’t know what to do or say,” Veselka tells HuffPost Canada. “The only thing worse than facing cancer is doing it alone.”
Attending appointments or keeping someone company during chemotherapy is valuable, but remember to be there after treatment as well. Ogle suggests being available in the days after chemotherapy when side effects can take their toll.
“Chemotherapy is physically exhausting and even painful,” she says. “You can help make them comfortable by bringing them water, blankets, and pillows, assisting with medications as needed, and again, just being there for them.”
Be their friend, not their doctor
In addition to providing practical support, Stitt, 57, says she put in an effort to make things special for Cathy. “I did not let the last year go by without a celebration,” she says, explaining that she, Cathy, and Cathy’s husband rang in the New Year early.
“We shared a table at our local amphitheater and each concert, I planned food and table decor that was appropriate for the music,” Stitt says. “We didn’t know it was her last concert season with us, but it was, so I’m so glad that we partied it up.”
It’s gestures like this that can help people feel like they’re more than a cancer patient — because they are.
Although dealing with cancer takes up a lot of physical and mental space, it’s important not to make all of your interactions with your loved one about their illness. Make sure to talk about the things that you always liked to talk about: favourite TV shows, celebrity gossip, or current events.
Avoid treating your friend like a cancer patient instead of a person who has cancer, says Tsao-Lin Moy, an integrative and Chinese medicine specialist in New York City.
“Something tends to happen when people get a diagnosis, they are ‘pathologized’ and this is dehumanizing them,” Moy tells HuffPost Canada. “It is not who they are.”
Make sure you stay in touch, even when your friend isn’t up to keeping up their end of the conversation; encourage friends and family to do the same as well. “Text and call intermittently just to say ‘Hi’ and that you love them,” Ogle says. “Reassure them that there is no need to respond.”
And remember that someone who’s sick still needs fun in their life, Stitt says.
“[Cathy] loved to have fun, and even when she felt awful, I tried to lighten her day or mood,” she says. “We laughed a lot.”
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