How to help someone with cancer as a companion

There are many meaningful ways our community is using companiions for a little help, support and companionship. As a companion, you can make a real and positive difference to the lives of people living with cancer, which according to Macmillan is 3 million in the UK alone. 

We asked Perci Health Professionals, psychologist Dr Lucy Davidson and cancer coach Claire Taylor, to create a guide to being the best companion you can be to someone living with cancer. Put into action, these points could improve their day-to-day and, cumulatively, your friendship.

Even with the best intentions, what people say vs what someone with cancer hears and interprets can vary greatly.

How to support someone with cancer as their companion

1. Be empathetic and open

Sometimes an individual with cancer will need you to just be there to listen and sit with the difficult feelings they are having. The ability to show empathy can be really valuable, rather than moving away from the difficulty they are expressing. 

"The simplest way to start a conversation is to just ask how they are; open, curious questions encourage someone to open up and share things with you, helping you to feel connected" says Psychologist, Dr Lucy Davidson.

2. Be present

It's not uncommon for feelings of loneliness and isolation to set in during this very difficult time for your loved ones and just being present can help overcome the loneliness.

"Whilst distractions are sometimes helpful, pretending everything is ok and not wanting to say anything in case you upset someone can be the worst position to take, as it may feel like you’re silencing or minimising the individual’s experience. It is really unlikely that asking how they are will cause undue upset, but take your cue from them about whether they want to talk about their cancer". 

3. Get the balance right

Sometimes when caring for people, our response is to be over-protective and this may not be helpful as they try to rebuild their confidence. 

"Communication is key here in finding out what matters to them and helping them define their priorities at this time. Recognise that your role may have to change over time so negotiating what they expect from you will help avoid any imbalances in your relationship" says Cancer Coach, Claire Taylor.

4. Validate their feelings

A person living with cancer will benefit from their experience being validated and you aiming to understand what they are experiencing and how they are feeling. Open communication and trying not to be judgemental are important during these conversations.

5. Educate yourself 

‘It is really easy these days to better understand what a person living with cancer is going through. You can find podcasts, articles, books and TV programmes that will give you a greater insight into what it is like to live with cancer. Look at some first-hand accounts, they could really help with any discussions you have about cancer, highlighting issues and experiences that haven’t occurred to you.

6. Ask what they really need from you

You can make a big difference in the day-to-day life of someone with cancer by being there for them emotionally and practically. As you spend time with your friend and learn more about how cancer is affecting their everyday life, you will find out what things you can offer to help. 

"Think about what their average day is like and what might make it a little better. This might involve offering to do small, practical things or finding ways to make your friend smile. Tailoring your help to what they need and enjoy most is the best way to be a friend" says Claire.

7. Don’t make assumptions 

A big assumption is that the end of treatment signifies the end, full stop. In fact, this can often be the hardest time for someone with cancer, as they adjust to life post-treatment. It may not feel celebratory or a relief to them, so always find out how they feel about it rather than assume they want to pop open the champagne.

8. Know their triggers

"People who have had a cancer diagnosis are rarely ‘over it’ – particularly challenging times can be the end of treatment, or when they have a scan or check-up due." says Dr Lucy.

"There may be other triggers also, like something they see or hear on the news, someone else they know getting diagnosed or dying – these things can bring up a lot of feelings. Keep this in mind and try to check how they are doing around these times. Supporting someone in integrating cancer into their lives, preparing for and talking about difficult times and not forgetting milestones, can be much more beneficial to them."

9. Accept you won’t always get it right

You won’t always get it right, and that’s ok. Just as with any relationship challenge, communication is key. Being tolerant and kind to each other is really important and will help with any bumps in the road.

10. Use your intuition

There may be times when your friend wants to talk about their cancer and their feelings and other times, when they want to forget all about it. Try to hear and understand how your friend feels. Let them know that you are open to talking whenever they feel like it. In summary, let them talk when they are ready, try to just listen, and do not feel you need to have answers.

11. Look after yourself

Supporting someone with cancer is difficult in its own right. You are likely to also experience a spectrum of challenging, difficult feelings –  fatigue, emotional stress and isolation for example - and these feelings may differ from the individual you are supporting who has cancer. Sometimes it is helpful to acknowledge and talk about these differences, sharing coping strategies and talking about each of you as individuals.

Make time for yourself and consider finding a support network of people in a similar situation to you.

About the authors: 

Dr. Lucy Davidson - Psychologist:

Dr. Lucy Davidson is a psychologist and scientific advisor on the board of Perci Health. As an accredited Counselling Psychologist, she has worked for over 13 years in oncology, supporting people living with cancer through emotional and motivational challenges, while helping them to develop insight and coping strategies from the point of diagnosis and beyond.

Dr. Claire Taylor - Cancer Coach:

Dr. Claire Taylor is a cancer coach and cancer specialist nurse with Perci Health. With over 25 years experience, she was awarded an MBE in 2020 for her services to colorectal cancer nursing. Through coaching she guides people living with cancer to make positive and sustainable lifestyle changes to enhance their quality of life.

About Perci Health

Perci Health offers online access to multi-disciplinary cancer teams focused on recovery from a physical, mental, social and emotional point of view. Focused on providing support to anyone affected by cancer, including friends, family and carers. Perci strongly believes that no treatable side effect should be left untreated. Find out more:

Learn more about how you can become a companion to help people in your local area and earn £12-25 per hour.