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  • Clare Reed CBT Therapist

Secrets to Success when Supporting a Cancer Patient

Updated: Jun 28, 2018

Supporting a loved one through their Cancer treatment is going to take some of your time, patience, energy, good humour and tolerance. Many carers get burnt out and can even end up ill themselves. You need to work out a plan that will enable you to be your best supportive self through this time. I am going to help you by sharing secrets to success that I know of and that some my clients have shared with me over the years.

Secrets to Success as a Supporter of Cancer
Secrets to Success as a Supporter of Cancer

Secret 1

Communicate and Delegate

Managing expectations of what you can do and what you can’t do for your loved one is vital. Many Cancer patient supporters run themselves ragged taking on too many chores, tasks and providing too much emotional support. Supporting someone who is really struggling with Cancer and not mentally doing well can be exceptionally draining.

Communication is the secret. If there is a pool of you that can support this loved one, a partner, adult children, best friends etc get them together for a lunch or coffee and talk through what you can all do to help. This will eliminate too much crossing over of support and focus on the things that may be getting left out. This might include:

  • Organising an accompanied exercise schedule for those who are fatigued but need help and encouragement to go on a walk.

  • Rotating grocery shopping in the weeks that the patient can’t get to the shops or lift a lot of weight.

  • Accompanying the loved one to hospital appointments, chemotherapy and radiotherapy if they are too weak to drive or get there themselves.

  • Cleaning their home if they have no extra help.

  • Batch cooking a few meals.

  • Garden maintenance if heavy watering cans and lifting is required.

  • Doing repetitive chores such as ironing.

Once you all know what you are capable of, and can provide in time and energy, present this to the patient. If your loved one is the type that is very independent they may push back and say they can do it all themselves, but remember pride comes before a fall! They will fall if they aren’t coping and their recovery will be longer and may be negatively impacted. If one of you has the knack of getting through to them nominate that person to put the proposed help plan to them.

Secret 2

Have a Plan B Rota

Doing the same tasks each week for your loved one is sometimes taxing. Mix it up and put a rota in place. Have a plan B on the rota for times when someone can’t do the task. The vital ones such as accompanying on chemotherapy and radiotherapy visits, if needed, are crucial making a Plan B essential.

Secret 3

Have a Life of your Own

Get on with your own life. Many supporters feel so guilty that they have a life to live and enjoy while their loved one is going through treatment. Guilt has to go. Life is a lottery and with stats growing annually with cancer diagnosis it could happen to any of us at any time. Think of it as 'paying it forward'. Your loved one may become your supporter one day. Think about being in your loved ones shoes. Would you want people to give up their lives to look after you? This is critical if you are a supporter who is elderly, have a demanding job, are self-employed or have other responsibilities in life. Frequent supporter respite is essential.

If your loved one is making you feel guilty with testing comments such as, ‘Oh, do you have to go so soon?’ or ‘It’s been ages since I have seen you’ (when it really hasn’t) this can be a sign of neediness. Some people are needy characters others less so, others more independent. The needy loved ones are the ones that will burn you out. If you are in this situation make sure to see if other supporters can 'step up' with more visits and help

Secret 4

Be a Motivator

Understand that your loved one may become very selfish during this time. Not all patients are saints! Some will want you to drop everything and run around after them, doing everything they want. If they truly do need help because they are incapacitated, such as very elderly or after an operation, then it’s fair enough. But if they are physically able to do some tasks they must be encouraged and motivated, even if an argument ensues! You must be cruel to be kind. A Cancer patient needs to keep doing things to preserve their own self-esteem and self-worth – even if they don’t realise this. Pushing back and making sure they are doing tasks and some chores is actually doing them a favour.

Secret 5

Your Body Is Your Temple

You must treat your body like a temple. This is an opportune time to keep your mind and body healthy and address a poor diet and bad habits. If you are living with your loved one set a good example and be a good champion of healthy eating and exercise. Your loved one may have been given nutrition instructions from a hospital dietician. Make sure you know what it involves and stick to the advice. This may mean cutting back hard on alcohol, quitting smoking, cutting meat, dairy and processed foods out. You may like to go the vegan path yourself in support for the duration of the treatment plan.

If you want to eat or drink these ‘off the list’ items try to do it out of the home, at work, or with friends. One of the hardest parts of changing to a healthy lifestyle for those going through Cancer is the willpower to stick to the new diet. Seeing others indulge in foods and drinks they previously enjoyed will make it stressful for those with low will power. Be fair to them and be fair to your own body and mind. You will get huge benefits from joining in with the healthy lifestyle too. It is a win-win situation!

Secret 6

Get out and About

If your loved one’s immune system is compromised, they really shouldn’t go to public places. This can happen with Cancer treatment. Chemotherapy slows the production of white blood cells which are vital for immunity. Likewise, some radiotherapy will lower their immune system. You will find yourself getting cabin fever if you restrict yourself to the home in your spare time. Make sure to get out a night or two a week, by yourself, to see friends/family and get a break from home. The daily drudge of going to work and going straight home will increase fatigue. A respite weekend away with friends every now and then is a great solution too.

If you are used to a lifestyle where you were going out to the cinema, restaurants, pubs etc with your loved one, and now find you can't, in order to protect their immune system, this new lifestyle will take a bit of getting used to. During a caring phase you may find yourself neglecting your friends too. This is a time to seek out regular respite social opportunities with friends and family by yourself - vital for your own mental health. Your loved one may also welcome some time to themselves!

Secret 7

Get Your Beauty Sleep

Sleeping with a Partner who is on steroids during chemotherapy can be very taxing indeed. Steroids can lead to insomnia for the patient. They may also have the double whammy of entering a forced menopause, if they are female, as their monthly cycle comes to a halt. This can lead to hot and cold sweats through the night. Post chemo can cause nausea symptoms making it difficult to sleep soundly. This is not a time to be a martyr. If you are working hard during the day you will need your sleep. Two grouchy heads in the morning will not be conducive to getting through this period. You will both suffer and so will your relationship.

Cancer patients really need every minute of sleep they can get while going through treatment and for a good year or more after treatment. Melatonin, which is the sleep hormone, is crucial for recuperation. A very dark room is vital for Melatonin production. If you have a spare bed opt to sleep in that on the worst nights. Normally steroids are taken a couple of days before chemo and the day of. Nausea impacts on the day of chemo for a good 3-4 days after. If possible, plan to sleep on your own on those nights. Your sleep is vital, treasure it for both your sakes.

Secret 8

Embrace their New Look

If your loved one is your partner and their hair starts to fall out understand they may not handle this at all well. Even if they put a brave face on it, inside they will like to know that they are still beautiful to you. Make sure to communicate this regularly. This applies to any physical changes, scars etc. Get to love their new look. A head massage will help their hair grow back faster, get some almond oil or other natural oil and give them a little head massage, if they like it. Some people like the idea of shaving their own heads in sympathy but also to raise awareness of what is going on in their lives and for charity purposes. But ask your loved one what they would like you to do. You don’t want them to feel worse than they do already, one enforced bald person can be enough to deal with. Others, like a group solidarity head shaving party. Whatever floats their boat will work.

Secret 9


Acceptance of their situation is key to good mental health. A fair number of my clients have told me how they felt under pressure to get better fast and to be extremely positive all the time due to a Partner or loved one who refused to accept that they were truly in a difficult situation. Being in denial is not helpful. Accept that their life may be compromised.

If your loved one is in palliative care, tough and brave decisions will need to be made, such as getting legal papers in order, funeral plans etc.

Be positive when it is rational to be. But don’t get yours and their hopes up too much, particularly if they are likely to be dashed. Keep a healthier, neutral, perspective instead. ‘The results will speak for themselves’ rather than ‘I am sure the results will come back clear’. Keep it real and factual.

Secret 10

Embrace the New You

All negative experiences shape us. We change and grown from adversity. You may notice a new, healthier outlook to life, a better attitude to dealing with the little things. Suddenly, little issues don’t seem so important any more. Cancer really puts things into perspective. Use this change and healthier mindset as a starting point for a new you.

For help during this time, as a supporter, don’t hesitate to reach out and book an appointment.

If you are currently, or have been a supporter, and have some good tips of your own please contribute them below in the comments section. Sharing is caring :)

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