What to do when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer

If someone you care about has cancer or another potentially life-threatening diagnosis, you may struggle with what to do. Amid feelings of sadness, disappointment and even anger, there’s also a desire to say and do the right things to bring comfort and hope to your loved one.

As the patient’s main support person, your most important role is to be an advocate. Listen and learn what physical, medical and emotional needs your loved one has and may have during treatment and consider the resources available to help you meet them.

Your best resource is your loved one’s medical team. Listen carefully to what they tell you and take notes if it helps you keep track of details. Ask questions, and if you want to do your own research, request recommendations for sources of reliable information.

Be wary of internet research. The information on some websites can be inaccurate, and because none of the information is tailored to your loved one’s case, what you find may create unnecessary concern and anxiety.

A calendar with large blocks of space can help you keep track of appointments and treatments. Keep medication lists, insurance cards, emergency contacts and “do not resuscitate” orders accessible.

Know that it is common for cancer patients to worry that they might die. If they have children, they will be concerned about missing important milestones in their lives. If they are working, they may be concerned about losing their job and their income and how that might impact the family. Be available to listen and help find resources and brainstorm solutions.

You might not be comfortable talking to your loved one about your feelings and concerns, but it is important to find an outlet. Your pastor or a social worker are good resources with experience in helping caregivers cope with their numerous challenges and concerns.

Many people are reluctant to ask for help, but the support of friends, neighbors, co-workers and your church to provide meals, transportation and assistance with light housekeeping can help you handle the added responsibilities of caregiving. If you are using outside agencies for help, read carefully which services are covered by insurance, available on a sliding scale fee basis or need to be paid for out-of-pocket.

Not everyone is physically and emotionally equipped to be a caregiver. It is better to acknowledge your strengths and ask for support to shore up your weaknesses than to become completely overwhelmed. Family, friends and neighbors “need to feel needed,” and you can fill that need by assigning them tasks.

Your health is incredibly important, so take care of yourself. Stay hydrated and rested to the best of your ability. Eat healthfully, take deep breaths and focus on addressing one task at a time and moving forward one hour at a time. Find humor wherever you can.

If you are not the main caregiver, offering your help with many of the above items can be a great support. Cards and prayers are always welcome. Be sure to call before stopping at a patient’s home to visit and, if you offer to do something, absolutely follow through.

Most patients want things to remain “normal” and that is not always possible. However, if you have children at home, try to stay with the normal routine to provide consistency and stability.

Last, the person you are caring for doesn’t always want to discuss their condition or answer “how are you doing?” questions. Listen attentively to what the patient discusses and asks, pay attention to non-verbal signals like nods, smiles, frowns and sighs, and follow their lead.

While not everyone can be a successful primary caregiver, even the slightest contributions to addressing the patient’s needs can be comforting and make a big difference.

Zimmerman is patient navigator and social worker at the Cancer Center at UPMC Susquehanna.