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How To Give & Receive Support After A Cancer Diagnosis

The news of a cancer diagnosis can be jarring, disheartening, and scary. Diagnosed individuals, no matter their age, stage, or circumstances, have to deal with a flood of unsettling emotions and conversations. In the midst of overwhelm, individuals with cancer have the added stress of speaking with their loved ones about the news. Due to the gravity of the situation, people often do not know how to give or receive ongoing support after a cancer diagnosis.

After diagnosis, cancer patients begin to fight cancer itself, as well as the apprehension and awkwardness that come from maintaining their interpersonal relationships. Whether you are a cancer patient yourself or a friend or family member of someone recently diagnosed, it is important to be cognizant of the turbulent learning curve of cancer support. While we cannot fully prepare ourselves for all of the ups and downs that come with a cancer journey, we can broaden our perspective and deepen our understanding of how to navigate the challenges.

Embracing & Extending Help

Asking for help during hard times can be just as difficult as offering it. If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you may experience an excess of concern from your loved ones. You may even be putting off sharing your news in fear of how others will react. Know that there can be a range of responses from your loved ones, and not everyone is going to react in the ways that you hope for or need. Try your best to be open-minded and open-hearted to the different forms of solace. Set feelings of being patronized aside and accept help if it feels right. At the same time, be aware of the possible need to manage expectations and understand that not everyone will have the emotional capacity to hold space for you and the journey you're about to embark on. That does not mean they do not love or care for you; they just might not know how to help. Ask for what you need and your friends and family will show up for you in the ways they can.

If you are the one trying to extend help to your diagnosed loved one, know that it can feel challenging to strike a balance between being overbearing and giving them too much space. Overwhelming your loved one with extensive amounts of advice or acts of service may evoke feelings of anxiety or self-pity. On the contrary, taking too much of a step back from showing up with emotional or physical help can make your loved one feel more alone and unloved. You have to remember that your loved one is not defined by their diagnosis. They are the same person who has to deal with this new challenge. Try to manage your own worries and emotions so that you can be a solid, stable, and balanced source of comfort and help. Show up for your loved one in any way that you can and ask them for what they need.

Cliché Cancer Catchphrases

When we give and receive advice, we can struggle to speak from the heart. More often than not, we find ourselves repeating trite phrases because it can feel difficult to find the right words to say. When it comes to giving advice or support to someone with cancer, it can feel even more challenging. Since everyone experiences cancer differently, there is no one-size-fits-all cancer conversation rulebook. However, we want to avoid cliché cancer words and phrases like “hero,” “battle,” “Just stay positive,” or “You’re so brave and inspirational,” if they are not spoken with authenticity. While we do not want to appear too mournful and grave, we also do not want these cliché cancer words and phrases to come across as toxic positivity or being ingenuine.

Instead of jumping into the first thing that comes to mind, think before you speak and try to focus on your nonverbal communication, such as your tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and eye contact. While you should try to be as calm, collected, and comfortable as you can, do not force phony faces, body language, or vocalics. Avoid unsolicited advice, preaching, and making the situation about you or someone else with cancer. Let the person with cancer set the tone and follow their lead. Most importantly, be sure to actively listen and try to say more things like, “I’m here for you,” and “I love you.” Even the phrase, “I’m not sure what to say, but I’m listening. What do you need?” will suffice. It’s better to say something like this than nothing at all.

For individuals with cancer, it can feel uncomfortable to listen to cliché cancer catchphrases and to speak up about what you do and do not want to hear. This is where you will need to tune into your own level of self-awareness so that you can communicate your true needs. You can tune into what you need by taking some time to yourself to breathe deeply, journal, go for a walk, or sit in a comfortable spot in nature or a favorite location to reflect. Your needs will change and that’s ok. Keep checking in with yourself so that you can set proper boundaries with others. Take what others say with, “a grain of salt” and know that their words are coming from a place of love and care. Allow yourself to feel those hard feelings, but remember to speak kindly to yourself. Some of the most important things you hear right now will be the things you tell yourself.

Support Outside of The Inner Circle

Right after diagnosis, many individuals do not feel ready to delve into the world of self-help and support groups. However, knowing that there are plenty of incredibly helpful resources out there can be encouraging. If you have been recently diagnosed with cancer or are a loved one of someone with cancer, know that you do not have to go through this hardship alone. Here is a list of suggested activities and resources to look into further:

  • Individual or family therapy

  • Online or in-person cancer support groups

  • Patient-centered cancer podcasts and literature

  • Professional healthcare options that fit your needs and goals

Pellegrino Integrative Cancer Center

Hudson Valley cancer patients and their family members have had to travel a minimum of 2 hours to receive quality integrative cancer care. In order to fill this vital need here in the Hudson Valley, Christine Pellegrino, M.S., L.Ac and Diana L. Silverman, D.O. have created Pellegrino Integrative Cancer Center. Learn more about how we can help you emotionally, physically, and spiritually:

Written by Michelle Eggink NTP

Nutritional Therapy Practitioner

Meditation & Mindfulness Teacher


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