Even though family and friends can be there to help, many people still find it hard to ask for, and then accept, support. When you are dealing with cancer treatment and side effects, your support network can make an enormous difference.
Family and friends usually appreciate being allowed to provide support – it helps them feel useful. Some people don't have family and friends who are willing or able to help, but there are also many sources of professional support available.
Offers of help
People are often willing to help if they know what you need. Some people will be able to talk about the cancer and comfort you if you are upset. Other people may prefer to offer practical support. If you have a partner or another person providing most of your care, an important role for other family members and friends may be to support that carer.
Some people like to use an app on their smartphone or computer, such as CanDo or Caringbridge. These apps allow you to list tasks and set up a roster so people can choose activities that match their availability and interests. They can also be a convenient way to share updates with your social circle.
Ways loved ones can help
These suggestions may be a useful prompt when people say, “Let me know if you need anything.”
- Provide practical support – prepare meals, do household chores, go grocery shopping, drive you to appointments, share an after-school roster and help you exercise.
- Keep others informed – screen calls and emails, act as the main point of contact for family and friends, coordinate offers of support and update social media.
- Offer companionship – keep you company and listen patiently without trying to solve your problems.
- Keep you involved – get you out and about and talk about other things apart from cancer.
More ways to help someone with cancer
Other sources of support
It’s not unusual for people to find themselves alone at some points in their life. Having a serious illness when you feel that you have no close family or friends can be especially hard, but you don’t have to cope by yourself.
The hospital social worker can link you with local services. Other sources of support could include not-for-profit organisations, including Cancer Council and cancer-specific groups, and community and faith-based groups. If you have children, their school may have a school counsellor or offer other types of support.
If you want to talk about the diagnosis or how you’re coping with treatment and side effects, you may want to connect with a support group, either in person, over the phone or online. In a support group, people can share tips and insights with others who have gone through, or are going through, a similar experience. You may find it easier to talk about your diagnosis and treatment, your relationships with friends and family, and your hopes and fears for the future.
Seeking professional support
While almost everyone with cancer experiences distress at some point, it can be hard to know if how you are feeling is a typical reaction or something more serious. A range of health professionals can provide support including your GP, cancer care team, a psycho-oncologist, psychologist and counsellor, among others.
If you talk to a health professional about your concerns, they are likely to use a standard method to measure how you are feeling. For example, you may be asked to rate your distress over the past week on a scale of 0 to 10 (often known as a distress thermometer) and complete a checklist of problems.
Warning signs of anxiety and depression
At any stage after a cancer diagnosis, it is natural to have days when you feel sad or worried. Sometimes a person may begin to feel 'stuck' in their distress and become anxious or depressed. If this is the case for you or someone you care about, it is important to seek help.
You may need to seek professional help if you:
- find it difficult to function on a daily basis
- have lost the desire to do things that previously gave you pleasure
- find you are feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- begin to rely on alcohol or recreational drugs
- stop eating regularly (unless the loss of appetite is an expected side effect of the cancer treatment)
- are sleeping too much or having a lot of trouble sleeping
- are worried you might hurt someone because of your anger
- think about self-harm or taking your own life.
Anxiety and depression are quite common among people who have had cancer, but there is no need to face this experience alone. Talk to your cancer care team or GP and discuss whether counselling or medication – even for a short time – may help. You can also call Cancer Council on 13 11 20, or get in touch with Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
If you are having intense thoughts about hurting yourself or others, seek immediate assistance by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24-hour crisis support. In an emergency, call Triple Zero (000).
Practical and financial help
A cancer diagnosis can affect every aspect of your life and often creates practical and financial issues. There are many sources of support and information available to help you, your family and carers navigate all stages of the cancer experience, including:
- information about cancer and its treatment
- access to benefits and programs to ease the financial impact of cancer treatment, such as help with the cost of prescription medicines, transport costs, utility bills or basic legal advice
- home care services, such as Meals on Wheels, visiting nurses and home help
- aids and appliances to make life easier at home
- support groups and programs
- counselling services.
The availability of services may vary depending on where you live, and some services will be free but others might have a cost. To find good sources of support and information, you can talk to the social worker or nurse at your hospital or treatment centre, or call 13 11 20.
Contact a cancer nurse
Being a carer can bring a sense of satisfaction, but it can also be challenging and stressful. It is important to look after your own physical and emotional wellbeing. Give yourself some time out and share your concerns with somebody neutral such as a counsellor or your doctor. There is a wide range of support available to help you with the practical and emotional aspects of your caring role.
Tips for carers and loved ones
If you are caring for someone with cancer, there are many ways to show your concern. You can offer both emotional and practical support.
- Offer to go with them to appointments – you can join in the discussion, take notes or simply listen.
- Don’t be afraid to say nothing – the silence might feel awkward, but simply being close to the person or holding their hand also shows you care and provides comfort.
- Focus on other things – make time to watch your favourite sport or TV show together, play a game of cards or a board game, or go on an outing together.
- Try not to do too much or take over – give the person the opportunity to do things for themselves. This can help them maintain a sense of normality and independence. They may appreciate the chance to be useful and connected to activities they enjoy, such as reading to kids or doing online shopping, even if they can’t do as much physically.
- Look after yourself – give yourself time to rest, as well as time away from the person with cancer. They probably would also appreciate some time alone. Don’t underestimate the emotional impact of supporting someone through cancer – you need to look after your own health if you’re going to give support.
- Provide practical help – you could cook a meal, help with the house or garden, take the kids to school or offer to drive the person to appointments. But remember the carer doesn’t have to do it all – accept offers of help from family and friends.
- Become informed – learn about the cancer and its treatment. This will help you understand what the person is facing, but hold off on offering your opinion unless they ask you for it.
- Talk honestly about your feelings – try not to change the subject if a conversation gets uncomfortable. Instead, share how you feel and respect each other’s feelings.
- Be around – your presence can help them feel less isolated and lets them know you care. If you are not there in person, check in by phone, text or email.
- Listen to their concerns – try to understand the person’s feelings and their perspective about treatment, side effects, finances and the future.
Emotions and Cancer
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Expert content reviewers:
A/Prof Anne Burke, Co-Director, Psychology and Allied Health Lead, Cancer, Central Adelaide Local Health Network and The University of Adelaide, SA; Hannah Chen, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Hazel Everett, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Services, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, TAS; Dr Jemma Gilchrist, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Mind My Health and Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead, NSW; Sandra Hodge, Consumer; Dr Michael Murphy, Psychiatrist and Clinician Researcher, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Alesha Thai, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Alan White, Consumer.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Emotions and cancer - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2021 edition). This webpage was lasted updated in March 2022.