Patients and Caregivers Share How to Find Emotional Support During Cancer Treatment

“Hearing from people who had gone through it was the biggest help in the very early days.”

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It can feel unfair that on top of needing to worry about your physical health with a cancer diagnosis, you’ll also need to put effort into getting the right emotional support. Being clear and direct with friends, family, and your medical care team to ensure your needs are met can go a long way.

Who can provide emotional support for cancer patients?

After a cancer diagnosis, there are many people you can turn to for emotional support. Even if you don’t have a large social network to lean on, you may have several professionals who can help.

People who may be able to provide support for your mental health include:

  1. Therapists: Search APA.org, your health insurance, or ask your doctor for recommendations of psychologists who specialize in coping with cancer.
  2. Cancer support groups: From traditional in-person meet-ups, to virtual video conference chats, and even travel or and philanthropic advocacy groups can introduce you to a whole new network who get what you’re going through, no explanation needed.
  3. Family: Your spouse, parents, siblings, children and relatives may all be able to help out in different ways.
  4. Friends: Your chosen family can come through when others don’t know what to do.
  5. Oncology team: Your primary oncologist and nurse receive training to care for you holistically, not just your physical symptoms.
  6. Social worker: Concerned about therapy costs? Licensed clinical social workers can also support you through financial, physical, and emotional stress. Plus, they can be much more accessible.
  7. Spiritual guide: Whether you’re religious or secular, your diagnosis may test your faith in yourself. Religious leaders, energy healers, and holistic health coaches can provide help.
  8. Pets: Talk about unconditional love, minus the unsolicited advice. Win-win. Can’t afford a pet? Volunteering at an animal shelter can be mutually beneficial.
  9. Coworkers: In American society, you might spend the majority of your day at your office. Your HR or benefits departments, or even your direct teammates, can rally around you and help you maintain a sense of normalcy in the workplace.
  10. Neighbors: It may feel awkward at first, but letting someone that lives nearby know what you’re going through can come in clutch. This is especially true if you live alone. For example, they could hold on to a spare key for you, pick up your mail, help care for your pet, or even pool in on groceries.

How have others gotten help after a cancer diagnosis?

Find others who need help — it will help you right back

“I thought it was really important to talk about it and normalize it, and make sure that other people that may be scared know that there’s someone they can reach out to. And exponentially, I want to help as many people as I can to survive and thrive through their own diagnosis when it comes to cancer.”

— Erik Hale, diagnosed with stage IIIA, then IIIB lung cancer

Listen to other survivors to get through the fear

“There’s a lot of fear, not knowing what’s ahead, what it’ll feel like, what you’re going to go through. Really hearing from people who had gone through it was the biggest help in the very early days.”

— Lexi Mestas, diagnosed with ovarian cancer

Set boundaries with your family to protect your peace and power

“When you first get diagnosed, it’s OK to need space. Even when you have a lot of people offering their support, and they want to help you. Take the time that you need. Then when you’re ready, be very specific about the things that you need and the ways they can help you.

“For me personally, I made a document called ‘Aisha’s Code of Cancer.’ I wrote down my health information, the ways my friends and family could help me, nd also some boundaries. That included, ‘Please don’t call me, but I can do text messaging.’ Or. ‘Please don’t talk about my health in front of my children if I’m not present.’ And, ‘Please don’t speak about the end of my life,’ — things like that. I gave this document to my friends and family over Thanksgiving and it was the most powerful and helpful way for me to set boundaries and really get the support that I truly needed from them.”

— Aisha Patterson, diagnosed with stage II breast cancer

Be open to adventure

“I heard about a company that creates free adventure trips for young adults with cancer called First Descents. I was a little bummed that I didn’t hear about them right away, because it’s such an incredible community — I ended up going on a free trip to Tarkio, Montana, and whitewater kayaking for a week, [where] I met 15 other young cancer thrivers. A lot of my close friendships are from that organization.”

— Bethany Webb, diagnosed with stage II, then stage IV breast cancer

Tell people exactly what you need — they’ll show up

“Until I started speaking with other parents, other caregivers, I thought it was just me [who felt alone] and abandoned by so many people that I thought would have been by my side… It made me realize [that] they still care; they just don’t know what to do. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness — it’s actually a sign of strength. I’ve learned to communicate with those [who] made me feel like they were abandoning me by saying to them, ‘Boy, this is what I could really use, emotionally.”

— Stephen Pecevich, father of a brain cancer survivor