In South Africa, one in four people are affected by cancer either directly or through diagnosis of a loved one.

Dr Marion Morkel, Chief Medical Officer at Sanlam, says that this means that many people will have to go through the emotional experience of watching someone they love battle with cancer.

“It’s often difficult to come to terms with the reality of the situation and to know what to say and how to act.”

A guide to supporting a loved with cancer

In collaboration with the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), Sanlam has developed a support guide to equip family and friends with advice on how best to support a loved one fighting cancer.

This guide is based on feedback from cancer patients and survivors about the kinds of support they received or wanted to receive during their treatment.

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Dr Morkel shares some of the insights that the cancer patients and survivors listed across the areas of emotional, physical, financial and lifestyle support: 

Treat me like a human, not like a disease

The number one request from participating cancer patients was to be treated like a human and not like a disease.

“As surreal as it may feel, you need to try to treat a loved one ‘normally’ and not like a patient,” explains Dr Morkel.

  • Let your loved one talk. Even if what they say makes you sad or uncomfortable.
  • Listen and don’t judge. Even if you disagree, ultimately, decisions are not yours to make. Gently offer your opinion if it’s asked for.
  • Be practical: Tangible support like looking after the kids or doing the dishes counts for a lot.

Be honest

Dr Morkel says that many people tiptoe around a loved one, unsure of whether to engage on a deeper level, but responses from cancer patients and survivors show that tough, frank conversations are necessary.

One patient said, “I needed an honest conversation about what lay ahead, and the possible path the cancer would take. Everyone is so kind and wants the best for you, but you are not always given the chance to mourn the loss of your health.”

Related: Study: Zinc halts cancer cell growth

Ask questions

Take the opportunity to mourn alongside a loved one – listen, engage and ask questions. If a patient makes a decision with which you disagree, try not to be judgemental but rather accepting. Remember, these decisions are not yours to make, no matter how close you are to the person. You may also want to seek counselling if you feel like you need someone to talk to.

Roll up your sleeves

The illness and treatment also have a massive effect on the person’s body, which can escalate rapidly, rendering a patient unable to do simple things like washing his or her hair in the shower.

Dr Morkel believes this presents an opportunity for family and friends to offer tangible and practical physical support, whether this be running errands on a person’s behalf or taking care of the kids.

Delegate

If your partner is undergoing cancer treatments, don’t try and take on everything yourself.

Ask friends for support, hire someone to help with the housework, investigate the cost of childcare and consider whether a fulltime caregiver is necessary. Often the small things matter the most – one cancer patient responded, “I wish someone had done my hair every day to help me feel human.” 

One cancer survivor recalled: “My friends and I made an outing out of wig shopping and we had lots of fun trying on different ones”

Offer financial help

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, often friends and family forget about the considerable financial toll it can have on the patient.

For many people, asking for money is hard, so a cancer sufferer is often unlikely to seek monetary assistance, even when it’s needed.

Dr Morkel says that if you’re financially able to do so, pre-empt some of the costs of cancer by offering donations towards medicine, petrol, childcare and groceries.

“Cancer has been known to leave many families destitute, especially when there’s no medical aid, dread disease or income protection in place. One cancer patient said she needed to travel 360km every three weeks for her chemotherapy treatments. These travel costs and other expenses add up and even small donations can go a long way to alleviate financial distress,” says Dr Morkel. 

Related: Shocking wait for breast cancer treatment in public health sector

Have fun

One cancer survivor recalled: “My friends and I made an outing out of wig shopping and we had lots of fun trying on different ones.” This support meant a lot to her. Dr Morkel explains that hair loss, in women especially, can lead to depression and a feeling of inadequacy.

Friends and family can help their loved ones to adapt to the new lifestyle by offering genuine compliments and by gifting hats and loose-fitting, comfortable clothes.

For many cancer patients, the most significant lifestyle support came from being invited to ‘normal’ everyday gatherings and events. Feeling excluded exacerbates feelings of being an outcast because of illness. By inviting a loved one to join in, you make him/her feel less like a patient, even if he/she can’t make it.

For more information on how best to support a loved one with cancer, read the full support guide. To find out more about cancer and support, contact CANSA

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.