How to Support a Parent Diagnosed With Cancer and Cope as a Caregiver

More than 17 million people worldwide had some form of cancer in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society. And while that number might read like just another statistic, when someone you love is diagnosed, things get real, and it happens fast.

When you first find out that someone you care about has cancer, your mind is quickly flooded with uncertainty. How do I know? Because I’ve lived it. My dad was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of esophageal cancer and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him, or the disease that’s trying to take his life.

So, from someone who is living it, here are a few coping tips for when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer.

Accept that it’s going to be an emotional rollercoaster

Nothing can truly prepare you for this one. No books, no medical research — just personal experience.

Illustration of adult daughter pushing parent diagnosed with cancer in wheelchair. pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Cancer is full of uncertainty. So, as someone providing support, be prepared for anything and everything.

From the moment you find out that someone close to you has been diagnosed with cancer, the unknown consumes you. Instantly, your mind is flooded with questions:

  • What type of cancer is it?
  • Where is it? Has it spread?
  • What are their chances of survival?
  • What’s the official prognosis?
  • What does treatment look like?
  • Why them? Why now?
  • How do I help?

My siblings and I have asked ourselves those questions hundreds of times over the past months. Fast forward through attending myriad doctor appointments, radiation and chemotherapy treatments and we still are asking many of them. The uncertainty never leaves, even when you have deep-seated hope that your loved one will survive.

According to the American Cancer Society, “each person reacts in their own way to cancer and its treatment. It’s normal to feel sad and grieve over the changes that a cancer diagnosis brings. The person’s emotions and mood can change from day to day, even from hour to hour. This is normal.”

The same goes for you, the caregiver. You won’t always know exactly what to do, what to say, or how to explain what you’re feeling, and that’s OK. Start simple by showing support.

My version of helping started with me calling my dad every day to check in and try to take his mind off things. It evolved into attending appointments and me taking him to cancer treatments weekly.

Some weeks we made it to the appointments just fine, but other weeks he was bed ridden, too depleted to stand up. I felt helpless watching a man who was once my childhood hero, even untouchable, not be able to get out of bed.

Those are the moments when you realize that sometimes the best type of support is just spending time with someone.

Show support through your actions, not just words

One way to help out is to take your loved one to and from treatments, which often requires you to take time off work, or adjust your schedule.

Peter S. Rose, an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, said “treatment varies depending on the type (of cancer) it is,” so it can be hard to predict exactly what will be required as your loved one heads into treatment.

But whether it’s radiation, chemotherapy or just attending informational doctor appointments, your presence may be just what your loved one needs.

“An extra brain and extra set of ears will help them hear what is going on — and process the information afterward,” Cleveland Clinic oncologist Mikkael Sekeres said.

Sekeres’s advice hit spot on for us. My dad has been single for 25-plus years, so my sister took on the role of the extra brain, ears and secretary.

She took notes and recorded conversations with the doctors on her smartphone, sharing them with the rest of us afterward. She documented important things like the names of prescriptions, dates and times for future appointments, and answers to any questions any of us had for the doctors.

Anything you can do to help alleviate the burden of the patient needing to remember everything will prove to be invaluable. Even if you can’t help by attending appointments with them, visit them regularly to show that you’re committed to being there for them no matter what lies ahead.

Take time to listen and talk

Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my father have come since his diagnosis. These conversations have happened in hospitals, waiting rooms, short car rides to and from his treatments and in his home during visits.

Cancer periodically finds its way into our conversations, but we don’t let it be the main focus. We reminisce, often provoking laughter or tears. We discuss how the rest of the family is doing and I ask him questions about his childhood and upbringing.

Each time I visit him, we record a Marco Polo message and send it to the rest of the my siblings. The sense of unity is real and, if nothing else, it’s great for everyone to get a check-in from the person suffering the most.

The most important thing is that your conversations happen naturally and aren’t forced.

Of equal importance are remembering things the American Cancer Society advises folks not to say:

  • Don’t offer unsolicited advice
  • Don’t say things like “I know how you must feel,” because there’s no way you can
  • Don’t patronize them by questioning how sick they feel at any given moment

Remember to take care of yourself

When you take on the role of a caregiver or supporter, it’s easy to lose sight of your own physical, emotional and mental well-being.

While spending time with your loved one is essential, don’t forget about your own needs.

For my sister and I, we’ve had to learn to share the burden with other siblings, even if they don’t seem as capable or interested in helping out. If you don’t allow others to help and communicate openly about caregiver expectations, you may end up straining valuable relationships.

If multiple people can help your loved one, let them share the load, but if the sole responsibility falls on you, try to be smart about your efforts.

The Mayo Clinic suggests several techniques for cancer patients that can also be great for loved ones needing balance in their own lives:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Set aside time to be alone
  • Don’t forget to eat and move your body
  • Find a spiritual outlet, if you so choose

When push comes to shove, supporting others really comes down to the airplane oxygen mask rule. If you get your own mask on first, you can most effectively assist others.

Likewise, when you’re spending a lot of time with a cancer patient, it’s essential to take care of yourself so you’ll remain capable of providing assistance and be on your A-game when the unexpected happens. Because it always will.

[Read: Young Adults Step Up to Care for Aging Loved Ones]

Learn to expect the unexpected

Bringing it back full circle, cancer is full of uncertainty. So, as someone providing support, be prepared for anything and everything.

For me, I was eating lunch with my dad one day and the next day he had fallen and had to be taken from his home to the ER by paramedics. Things really do change that fast.

According to the American Cancer Society, “cancer can be very unpredictable. Someone with cancer can feel good one day and terrible the next. Expect that they will have good days and bad days. Learning to live with uncertainty is part of learning to live with cancer, both for the patient and for the people around them.”

Regardless of the type of cancer, it’s never easy learning how to cope, even as a caregiver. But you’ll never regret the love you extend to someone in need. And as odd as it may sound, the process of serving someone you love will help you cope with the unpredictability of cancer, as well.

Bobby Macey

Bobby is a full-scale content producer who enjoys writing articles, making videos and posting to his food Instagram account, @bobbyeatsit. He’s been published nationally and writes on a variety of topics. He’s known for his positive attitude and can-do spirit.