How to support someone with cancer
When someone you know has cancer, there are lots of things you can do to support them. You can also get support to help you cope with your own feelings.
If someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, you will probably want to help. But you might not know what you can do. Or you may have trouble finding the right words when speaking to them.
You might be so worried about what to say that you avoid talking. This can leave the other person feeling like they are facing the cancer alone.Although it is not you who has cancer, it can be a very hard time for you too. You will need time to accept things, and you may have many different emotions to cope with.
Talk to a partner, your family or friends about how you feel. You may find they want to share their feelings with you too.
You can also get support from:
- our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00
- our Online Community
- a counsellor – your GP can give you more information.
We also have separate information for you if the person you are supporting is:
When someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, it can be frightening. You may worry about the treatment they will have, or how your lives may change.
One of your biggest fears may be that they will die. But many cancers can be cured if they are found early. And when a cancer is not curable, treatment often means it can be controlled for some time.
Knowing about the different stages of having cancer can help you understand what the person is going through.
How cancer is diagnosed
Most people start by seeing their GP if they have symptoms. The GP may refer them to a hospital for tests. After the diagnosis, a cancer specialist usually does further tests to find out more about the cancer. This helps them decide on the best treatment.
How you can help
There are things you can do:
Be there for them
- Visit them, especially if you are worried they are feeling lonely. But let them know it is okay for them to tell you if they want to be alone or do not want visitors.
- If you cannot visit, you could call or text them, or send an email or a card. Let them know they do not have to reply.
- Give them time to talk. It is sometimes important that you just listen.
- Spend time with them. You could go for a walk or watch TV or films together.
- Suggest they can call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 to find out how we can help them.
Be there for hospital appointments
- Help them plan for appointments. Ask if they have questions or things they want to say. Suggest they write notes to take with them on the day.
- Offer to go with them to the appointment for support and to talk about things afterwards. You can wait for them in the waiting room if they want to go to the appointment alone.
- If you are with them during the appointment, offer to write things down to help them remember what is said. Before you go, ask them how much they want you to be involved. They may be happy for you to ask questions, but it is best to check in advance.
- Doctors and nurses cannot give you any information without permission from the person with cancer. They can tell their doctor if they are happy for treatment information to be shared with named people. The doctor can then record this in their case notes. If the person with cancer is your partner, you do not have to be married or in a civil partnership to do this.
Be there between appointments
- Having information may help the person with cancer feel more in control. You can tell them about the cancer information on our website and in our booklets.
- They might like to organise the information they have been given and keep a record of things like their symptoms. You could tell them about the free Macmillan Organiser.
- Remember they may not want to know all the details when they are diagnosed with cancer. Ask how much information they want.
You may worry about how the person with cancer will react if you talk to them about their diagnosis. You may feel unsure about what to do if they cry or get angry. Or you might be worried that talking about the cancer will make them feel worse. But the opposite might be true. Not talking about a fear or worry can make it feel bigger.
We have advice to help you make talking and listening easier and deal with difficulties.
The main cancer treatments are:
Often a combination of more than one type of treatment is used.
Different treatments cause different side effects. These can include:
- a lowered immune system, which can make people more likely to get infections
- feeling very tired (fatigue)
- changes in appearance, such as hair loss, changes to body shape, and weight changes
- changes in how the body works or feels, such as feeling or being sick, diarrhoea or constipation
- eating problems, such as a loss of appetite, sore mouth, or problems chewing or swallowing
- emotional changes, such as anxiety, anger and depression.
Side effects can usually be reduced in some way. The person's healthcare team can give them advice about how to cope with these.
How you can help
If they are in hospital
- Text or call to check if they want you to visit.
- Do not visit if you are not feeling well.
- Visit during visiting hours, and do not stay too long if they are tired.
- Take them a book, magazine, some music or something else you know they enjoy.
- Update them on what is happening with family members, friends or colleagues.
- Ask if anything needs doing at home that you can help with.
If they are at home
- If they have a carer, offer to visit so the carer can have a break.
- Ask how often they would like you to visit – they will need time to rest.
- Do not visit if you are not feeling well.
- Ask if there is anything you can do to help. For example, ask if you could do some laundry, pick the children up from school, take care of a pet or weed the garden.
- If they feel up to it, suggest doing some gentle exercise together, like going for a short walk.
- If they have to go to hospital for treatment, offer to go with them and wait while they have it.
- If they are a work friend, send a card from yourself and the other people you work with.
Some people find that changes in how their body looks or works are very hard to deal with. The person with cancer may feel less confident, and worry that people will treat them differently. They might want to talk to you about how they feel. Talking can help them adjust to any changes.
We all show our feelings in different ways, and sometimes one emotion is hiding another. For example, the person with cancer might feel frightened but show it by being angry. Try to remember they may be angry about what is happening and not with you. Talking about our feelings can help us understand our behaviour. But this is not always easy.
If you find it hard to talk, it is okay to say, ‘I don’t know what to say’. You may worry about saying this. But being honest about your feelings will help build trust between you. It will also make it easier for them to be honest about their feelings.
You may find these conversations too hard. It is okay to suggest they ask their GP or healthcare team for emotional support.
If the aim of the treatment was to cure the cancer, the person may not need any more treatment. Or they may be living with cancer and need more treatment in the future. They will probably have regular check-ups and scans.
They may start trying to get their life back to the way it was before the cancer. It can take time to recover from the effects of treatment, and it is normal to feel tired for several months. Some side effects might be long-lasting, and some people may have physical and emotional changes to get used to.
How you can help
- The person might want to focus more on their family, friends or social life. Suggest visiting or meeting up.
- It will take time for them to recover, so keep offering support. Ask them how they are and what you can do to help.
- Offer to help with things like gardening, shopping, cooking or housework.
- Being active might help them feel better. Offer to do some gentle exercise with them, like going for a walk.
- If they are nervous about check-ups or appointments, offer to go with them for support.
- If you cannot visit, call or text them, or send an email or a card.
Talking about life after treatment
People have many different emotions after cancer and its treatment. They may be scared that the cancer will come back and they will need to have more treatment. They may wonder whether the cancer has been cured. Some people may feel low or depressed for a while. Other people feel anxious because they do not see their healthcare team any more.
When your friend, family member or partner is ready, talking can help them cope with their emotions.
If the cancer comes back or has spread, there may come a time when treatment cannot control it. The person may be told they only have a while to live.
They may become ill over many months. Or they may become ill more quickly. It is not possible to know when someone may die.
Finding out someone’s cancer cannot be cured can be very hard to cope with. You will have lots of different emotions.You might find it hard to believe the cancer cannot be cured. After a few days, the shock and disbelief may be replaced by other feelings. These may make it hard for you to think clearly.
You might need some help to cope with the news, for example from:
How you can help
- Visit the person at home, in hospital, or in the hospice or nursing home.
- If they do not want to be on their own, offer to work out a rota so that there is always someone with them.
- Ask if they would like to talk to a religious or spiritual advisor or a counsellor.
- They may only want to see their close family, so try not to feel hurt if this happens.
- Offer to help with housework, shopping and cooking. If they have a carer, this will mean they can spend more time with them.
- Offer to sit with them to allow other people to have a break.
Talking about cancer that cannot be cured
Most people find it hard to talk about death and dying. People who are dying, and their partner, family and friends, sometimes know what is happening. But they may not feel able to talk about it.
Often being with the person is enough. A loving look, a hug, or a squeeze of the hand can help if you cannot talk. Crying is a natural thing to do. You do not have to be brave. If you try to hide your feelings, you may not get the chance to say the things you want to.
Towards the end of their life, they will get weaker and less able to do things. A lot of the time they may just want to lie quietly with people sitting nearby. They can tell you if they would like to talk, be quiet or listen to music. This can be a very special time.
There is no right way to cope with knowing someone close to you is dying. You can only cope in the way that is best for you and accept it in your own way.