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 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.
Offers of help
People are often willing to help if they know what you need. Family and friends can support you in different ways. 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 and friends may be to support that carer.
Some people like to use an app on their smartphone or computer, such as CanDo, LOVLIST or Caringbridge. These apps allow you to list tasks and set up a roster so people can choose activities that match their abilities and interests. They can also be a convenient way to share updates with your social circle.
"Talking to a counsellor made me realise I don't have to go it alone. We have good friends and a great community who will support me. I just needed to be able to step back and see the possibilities." - Kate
Ways family and friends can help
The suggestions below may be a useful prompt when people say, "Let me know if you need anything."
Providing practical support
- preparing meals
- doing household chores
- going grocery shopping
- driving you to appointments
- sharing an after-school roster
- helping you exercise
Keeping others informed
- screening calls and emails
- acting as the main point of contact
- coordinating offers of support
- updating social media
- keeping you company
- listening without trying to solve your problems
Keeping you involved
- getting you out and about
- talking about other things aside from cancer
For more tips, visit cancercouncil.com.au/podcasts and listen to our podcast "How 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 try to cope by yourself. The hospital social worker can link you with local services. Other sources of support could include not-forprofit organisations, including Cancer Council and cancer-specific groups (such as Breast Cancer Network Australia and Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia), and faith-based groups. If you have children, formal or informal school-based assistance, such as the school counsellor, may be available. See various sources of practical and financial assistance.
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. You may feel supported and relieved to know that others understand what you are going through and that you are not alone. In a support group, people often feel they can speak openly and share tips with others who have gone through a similar experience. You may find that you are more comfortable talking about your diagnosis and treatment, your relationships with friends and family, and your hopes and fears for the future. Some people say they can be even more open and honest in these support groups because they aren't trying to protect those close to them.
To find out which support groups are available in your area, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or ask your nurse or social worker.
When do you need professional support?
While everyone with cancer experiences distress at some point, it can be difficult to know if how you are feeling is a typical reaction or something more serious. 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 and complete a checklist of problems.
At any stage after a cancer diagnosis, it is natural to have days when you feel sad or worried. Sometimes, however, a person may begin to feel "stuck" in their distress and become very depressed or anxious. 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 drugs
- stop eating regularly
- 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, as counselling or medicine – even for a short time – may help. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or get in touch with beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or at beyondblue.org.au. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au
Health professionals who can help
Your GP can assist you with treatment decisions and works in partnership with your specialists in providing ongoing care. They can refer you to other health GP professionals for support with managing emotions or thoughts. Check with your GP whether you can access Medicare rebates for sessions with a psychologist or social worker.
Cancer care team
The team at your hospital or treatment centre will often include social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and spiritual care practitioners. If you let your cancer specialist, cancer care coordinator or cancer nurse know how you are feeling, they can arrange for you to see these other health professionals as needed.
A psycho-oncologist is a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist who has specialised in the field of cancer care (oncology). They provide support to people with cancer and their families, and often work in hospitals and cancer treatment centres.
Counsellors can listen to what's going on in your life and offer strategies for dealing with issues. They do not need to have any qualifications to practise, although many do, so it's a good idea to check before making an appointment. Counselling may be available through your local Cancer Council – call 13 11 20 to find out.
Social workers provide emotional support, offer practical and financial assistance, and help people find support services. They must complete a four-year undergraduate or two-year postgraduate degree.
Psychologists often develop expertise in particular approaches – those who specialise in counselling use their understanding of the mind to guide clients through issues with how they think, feel and learn. A registered psychologist must complete four years of psychology at undergraduate level, followed by either postgraduate studies in psychology or two years of supervised clinical practice.
Mental health nurse
The role of a mental health nurse includes assessing people, giving medicines and assisting in behaviour modification programs. They must be a registered nurse who has completed further study in mental health nursing.
A psychiatrist is a trained medical doctor who specialises in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. As well as providing psychological support and discussing issues with patients, a psychiatrist may prescribe medicines to help manage a range of emotional conditions. You need a referral from your GP to see a psychiatrist.
Spiritual care practitioner
Also known as a pastoral carer, a spiritual care practitioner is often a member of the team at hospitals and cancer treatment centres. They can discuss emotional and spiritual matters and help you reflect on your life and search for meaning. They can also arrange prayer services and other religious rituals, if appropriate.
If you just want to talk through your concerns or you're not sure where to go for help, you can talk to a health professional at Cancer Council by calling 13 11 20.
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 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 get in touch with Cancer Council 13 11 20. See Cancer and Your Finances and Cancer, Work & You.
"My family members don't really understand what it's like to have cancer thrown at you, but in my support group, I don't feel like I have to explain." – Sam
Support from Cancer Council
Cancer Council offers a range of services to support people affected by cancer, their families and friends. Services may vary depending on where you live.
Cancer Council 13 11 20
Trained professionals will answer any questions you have about your situation and link you to services in your area.
Cancer Council produces information on over 25 types of cancer, as well as treatments, emotional and practical issues, and recovery. Call 13 11 20 or visit your local Cancer Council website.
Your local Cancer Council can help you find services or offer guidance to manage the practical impact of a cancer diagnosis. This may include access to transport and accommodation services.
Legal and financial support
If you need advice on legal or financial issues, we can refer you to qualified professionals. These services are free for people who can't afford to pay. Financial assistance may also be available. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to ask if you are eligible.
Peer support services
You might find it helpful to share your thoughts and experiences with other people affected by cancer. Cancer Council can link you with individuals or support groups by phone, in person, or online. Call 13 11 20 or visit cancercouncil.com.au/OC.
You can find many useful resources online, but not all websites are reliable. These websites are good sources of support and information.
Online and telephone support
Other Australian websites
Expert content reviewers:
Dr Anna Hughes, Liaison Psychiatrist and Psycho-oncologist, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Mary Bairstow, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Anita Bamert, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Kate Barber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Sally Carveth, Assistant Coordinator, Cancer Support Leader Program, Cancer Council NSW; Matt Featherstone, Consumer; Dr Charlotte Tottman, Clinical Psychologist, Allied Consultant Psychologists and Flinders University, SA; Shirley Witko, Senior Social Worker, Comprehensive Cancer Centre, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA.