As Rachel Zoe discovered when her sister was diagnosed, being a support system for someone with cancer is incredibly hard. Knowing how best to react to the news itself — which is a bewildering combination of upsetting, shocking, and confusing — can feel impossible. Trying to ascertain how you can help while also navigating your own emotions and responsibilities can be overwhelming. Having watched her sister Pamela successfully battle breast cancer, Zoe has kept the cause close to her heart, and she actively supports the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. She is also a champion of her friend Yael Cohen Braun's charity F*ck Cancer, which focuses on prevention, early detection, and providing psychosocial support for people dealing with any cancer diagnosis — a new direction in an arena that had previously been largely focused on raising awareness and funding for research. Channeling their funding from events, donations and merchandise, F*ck Cancer offers a wide range of preventative and psychosocial support programs through partnerships with other groups both online and on the ground, in communities that need it most. We asked Yael to share some tips on being there for someone with cancer, and while every individual journey is different, these guidelines will help you provide an amazing support system for a loved one.
Be reliably available to listen to whatever they're experiencing — it will likely span a wide range of emotions and challenges. When Zoe's sister was undergoing treatment, she made sure she knew she could contact her "at any time 24/7" Zoe says. As Cohen says, "at night is when the quiet sets in and you have to deal with the fact that you're terrified". The willingness to hear their struggle is, in itself, a great source of support.
No one wants to feel pitied or suddenly different, and in fact that can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness brought on by what is already an intense, normalcy-shattering situation. In fact, that aversion to pity was what sparked the "F*ck Cancer" slogan t-shirt Cohen made for her mother in the beginning. "My mother was not the kind of person to say the word, let alone wear it," says Cohen, but helping her regain control of her experience was invaluable, "It was so authentic to say 'F*ck Cancer', to me, with those words together, came a confidence". Talking to them about other things and continuing to maintain normalcy in your friendship and their life, can help counteract all of the changes they're going through. Try setting an example of openness about your own emotions to create a safe space for them to communicate what they're feeling, too.
Dealing with medical advisors, insurance companies, medications, and appointments becomes even more difficult when feeling rough as a result of treatment. Cohen says as a patient or their primary caregiver, juggling the new set of responsibilities is overwhelming, "You're trying to figure out what you should and shouldn't do, how to keep loved ones updated, how to respond to their offers of help, it's a lot...in fact its too much". Help your friend, or their primary caregiver, to keep tabs on everything by offering to take notes, set up calendar reminders, or make shopping lists. Something as simple as helping to delegate responsibilities or keeping friends and loved ones updated can go a long way.
Having experienced this first hand when her mother was battling breast cancer, Yael says no one needs 14 bouquets of flowers or three casseroles. On the flip side, asking what you can do to help actually puts the onus back on the person. Instead, Yael suggests offering specific help, "For example, 'I’d love to pick up the kids from school/walk the dog/take you to treatment/cook you dinner,'" all of which are errands that actually need to get done. Even helping them figure out who in their community can handle certain tasks — and assigning them to do them — can be hugely helpful.
Anything from scheduling fun activities or sending notes or gifts will help take their mind off things. Never underestimate the value of laughter and it's ability to alleviate stress. "When my mom got cancer, positivity and humor were my family's secret weapon," says Cohen. Tag theme in silly memes or suggest coming over to watch a funny movie — just be flexible when it comes to making plans.