Helping communicate after a cancer diagnosis

elderly men hugging

If you’re caring for someone who’s recently diagnosed with cancer, you may see them feeling overwhelmed and confused. Below are some scenarios they may face and ways you can help them.

Talking to their physician
We all know the feeling of walking into the doctor’s office and forgetting what we wanted to ask. Help prevent this by writing down any questions ahead of time. Doctors may offer an overwhelming amount of information. Try to go with them to appointments, bring a notebook to write things down and make sure they are able to ask all their questions without feeling rushed. Go over your notes together afterwards.

Questions to ask

  • What are treatment options?
  • Are there side effects?
  • How to best prepare for treatment?
  • How many treatments will they need?
  • If surgery is needed, how long will they be in the hospital?
  • What is the recovery period like?
  • What medications will they be on?
  • If this treatment doesn’t work, what’s next?
  • What lifestyle changes could be made to help this be as smooth and effective as possible?

Friends and family
Telling people you have cancer is not easy. Help the person you’re caring for feel empowered to tell people at their own pace and comfort level.

People may feel the need to tell them stories or make healthcare suggestions. Make sure they know that they don’t have to take any advice or listen to stories that make them uncomfortable. Try to create safe spaces where they don’t feel the need to cater to others through their illness.

Support groups
Find local support groups of current and former cancer patients. These will be full of people who have been through the same situation who can be sympathetic and encouraging, as well as offer ideas on how to stay positive in spite of a challenging diagnosis.

Search online to find a group, or ask a doctor or clinic for recommendations. Places of worship may have support groups, and online support groups are becoming an option for patients who don’t feel well enough to travel, or live too far away from a group to attend. Remind the patient that they aren’t committed to the first group they visit, and they should keep trying until they find one that works for them.

Sources: “‘Doctor, Can We Talk?’: Tips for Communicating With Your Health Care Team.”CancerCare, accessed February 14, 2014.

“Talking With Friends and Relatives About Your Cancer.” American Cancer Society, May 30, 2013, accessed February 14, 2014.