How to support a loved one with cancer

With the Australian Cancer Council predicting that 134,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year, most of us know someone affected by this insidious disease. So how do we best offer our support?

Executive life and business coach Josie Thomson, herself a two time cancer survivor, says while the word ‘cancer’ is a big one, creating fear in most of us, cancer patients need support and understanding.

“Most people have no clue how best to support themselves and those they care about through cancer, especially when it’s life threatening,” Josie explains. “Their own emotions often cloud their clarity and behaviour.”

“The very word cancer can elicit a very strong threat response in people. When this happens it puts us immediately into fight or flight mode, causing us to stop thinking straight,” she says.

Josie explains that to be able to manage ourselves and support others we need to ‘calm the farm’. “Literally, keep your mind calm so then you’ve got the clarity of mind to make some really critical decisions.”

And what should friends say in their attempt to offer support?

“My advice would be don’t ask, how are you? That can be too direct and will depend on the trust and the relationship that you have with the person involved. Instead perhaps ask, how can I best support you? Or what do you need right now?”

Cancer remains a leading cause of death in Australia, accounting for three in every 10 deaths in 2014. The Cancer Council says one in two Australian men and women will be diagnosed with the disease by the age of 85.

Josie says while strong emotions like fear can naturally take a hold of us, it’s important to remember you can’t ‘catch’ cancer by touching someone.

“People who have been diagnosed with cancer are scared and need touch and reassurance and lots of hugs. But give a hug, don’t take a hug – these are very different things.”

She says supportive words are important too, although warns it’s important to differentiate support from sympathy.

If you’re the person who is affected, Josie advises focussing on what you want (not what you don’t want).

“You can’t move on while you’re looking backwards – the brain is just like a car in reverse, expecting to go forward. This has us focussing on what we ‘don’t want’ instead of what we do want. We need to turn fear around to focus on what we want. There’s a big difference!”

Catch up on the full episode of The House of Wellness TV show to see more from Giaan, Ed, and the team.