A field guide to family members of cancer patients

There are a variety of styles that spouses and other close family members adopt to help a family member with cancer. Here are several negative styles that I’ve observed through the years as well as the style that is most likely to be helpful. Combatants are always looking to pick a fight, often with doctors



How faith communities serve those with cancer

I recently had the good fortune of attending a couple of church services in rural communities near Ithaca in order to speak about the work of the Cancer Resource Center. It reminded me that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith communities are often the primary sources of support for people going through cancer. And, as



Stopping treatment is not giving up

I sometimes hear from individuals with advanced cancer who continue with aggressive treatment because their loved ones exhort them to “not give up.” Some family members go so far as to say that stopping treatment is the same as committing suicide. It’s not. I wish that we could reframe this discussion because when people choose



Helping those we don’t like

In my columns, I often suggest practical ways to help people with cancer. Giving support to nice people is relatively easy. You want to bring them soup and give them a hug. But contrary to what you see in the movies, not everyone with cancer is angelic. Some of us are cranky. Others are downright



It all changed overnight

If your spouse or partner is diagnosed with cancer, your life changes. You worry about the future and your days are filled with appointments, tasks, and caregiving. If your spouse or partner is diagnosed with advanced cancer, your life changes even more radically. As one man told me, “It all changed overnight.” His wife, by



We have cranky days

A woman going through cancer treatment was having a bad day. She was miserable and her friends were offering words of encouragement along the lines of, “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” She told me that the encouragement didn’t help. She said that it was like wearing cold, wet clothes. Hearing that she’ll soon have warm, dry



Why Aren’t They Doing More?

I sometimes get asked various versions of this question: “My father has advanced cancer, but they don’t seem to be treating him very aggressively. Why aren’t they doing surgery to remove the metastases in his liver and in his brain?” This is always a difficult question because the news is sometimes hard to absorb. When



Advice for the College Student

There are thousands of college students in Ithaca and quite a few have a parent living with cancer. They often wonder how they can help their parent, and their parent often worries about them. Here are some suggestions: For the college student: Educate yourself about your parent’s cancer. Some cancers are likely to be temporary



Send a Card

A group of us from the Cancer Resource Center recently spoke with a class at Ithaca College. One student asked, “How can we help a friend who has cancer?” Beth Brunelle, a member of our panel replied, “Send them a card.” She continued, “Although it might sound simple or trite, I love getting cards. My



How to help a cancer patient’s caregiver

I often write columns that suggest ways that caregivers can help the person with cancer. Today, I want to suggest ways that the rest of us can help the caregiver. I’m defining caregiver as the person most involved in supporting the patient. It’s typically a spouse, child, parent, sibling, or friend. This is the person most



Be Kind

I’ve written columns in the past that suggest what to say and what not to say to a person with cancer. Many readers have found those suggestions helpful, but a few have said that they wanted something even simpler to guide them. Here it is: be kind. This echoes the words of the Dalai Lama: “My



Just Listen

Visitors often leave the Cancer Resource Center with words of sincere appreciation. They’ll say, “You were so helpful to me.” What’s noteworthy is how often this help had taken the form of listening. When people are diagnosed with cancer, they’re inundated with information, advice, and other forms of input. Nearly every conversation they have presents something



Blended Families and Cancer

I regularly write about communication within a family when someone is dealing with cancer. American families are, of course, often blended families. People remarry. Connections change. When cancer is diagnosed, family members come together to share information and provide advice. Newer family members want to be helpful but might feel uncertain of what role they



A health professional in the family

A Health Professional in the Family Sooner or later, someone in your family will be diagnosed with cancer. If you’re a doctor, nurse, scientist, or other health professional, you may feel obligated to help that person navigate through the decisions that need to be made. In my experience, health professionals better serve their loved ones by



Better Phrase Than Staying Strong

If your loved one has cancer, you may sense an obligation to be strong. The phrase “Be strong” is branded into our brains, but I wish we had a better phrase to capture the role of the people closest to those with cancer. Being strong makes me think of Clint Eastwood characters. Never flinching, always



When A Loved One Has Cancer

A cancer diagnosis changes your life and the lives of the people who love you. It can be especially challenging for your loved ones because they may want to appear strong and optimistic even though they’re scared to death on the inside. In addition to worrying about their loved one’s cancer, they may be running



Groundhog Friends

I’m often asked how to be a friend to someone with cancer. I generally answer this question by encouraging them to be good listeners and to be present for their friend in every sense of the word. The best friends are what I describe as “groundhog friends.” Remember the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray?



Mental Illness And Cancer

If anyone deserves a guaranteed place in heaven, it’s people who support a loved one who has both serious mental illness and cancer. This is more common than one might expect. I know of several individuals who are helping family members through cancer after helping them through mental illness for years or even decades. I’ve



Holiday Gifts

I have been thinking about gift suggestions for people who are being treated for cancer and for those who have recently completed treatment. As a starting point, my recommendation is to give gifts of life rather than gifts of cancer. No matter how well-intentioned the gift, I become cranky if I find my Christmas stocking



Advocating For A Loved One

I’ve often written that it is helpful for a person with cancer to have an advocate present during doctor’s appointments and hospital stays. I’d like to devote this column to the nuts and bolts of what this really means. What I describe is based on seeing hundreds of loved ones serving as advocates. Nearly all



Head And Neck Cancers

Every type of cancer presents its own set of problems, but people being treated for head and neck cancers experience some of the most unique and daunting challenges. Head and neck cancers refer to cancers of the mouth, tongue, throat, larynx, sinuses, tonsils, and similar structures. Some 40,000 cases are diagnosed in the United States



Helping Those We Don’t Like

In my columns, I often suggest practical ways to help people with cancer. Giving support to nice people is relatively easy. You want to bring them soup and give them a hug. But contrary to what you see in the movies, not everyone with cancer is angelic. Some of us are cranky. Others are downright



When Loved Ones Complete Treatment

Most people realize that their loved ones with cancer need special attention when they are beginning treatment. Fewer people realize that their loved ones also need special attention when they are finishing cancer treatment. Family members generally look forward to the end of treatment because it means that life may get back to normal. They’ve



Visiting Those In The Hospital

People with cancer are sometimes hospitalized and their friends often want to visit to offer support and encouragement. Understanding some general guidelines will help make the visit a positive experience for everyone: Keep the visits brief. People in the hospital are generally quite ill and have limited energy. If you stay long, it puts a



Helping From A Distance

I once received a letter from a man serving time in prison asking how he could help his mother who was ill with cancer. As I wrote back to offer suggestions, I recall thinking that this was an extreme example of long-distance care giving. He literally couldn’t visit his mother and his ability to communicate



Young Adults With Cancer

Getting cancer is awful at any age, but it has to be especially difficult for young adults. They’re too old for the nurturing and specialized pediatric oncology programs, and too young to fit in with the rest of us with cancer who are middle-aged and older. Do you remember when you were beginning to establish



What To Say To A Friend With Cancer

Most people find it awkward when first talking with a friend or acquaintance who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Even though nearly everyone is well-intentioned, many say things that hurt or mystify more than they comfort. Based on my own experiences and my conversations with others with cancer, here are some suggestions: What not



Thoughts And Prayer Tree

There’s a small tree in the living room of Gary and Mary Ellen Stewart’s house in Ithaca. It’s covered with cards, letters and drawings. At first, a visitor isn’t quite sure what it is. It looks somewhat like a Christmas tree, but it’s the wrong time of year. A closer look reveals that everything attached



Stepping Up For Neighbors

Not everyone with cancer has built-in support. Perhaps the individual has no family, or an event in the past may have caused the family to become estranged. Some people are just loners by nature and have happily kept to themselves through the years. Others are isolated because of mental illness. And some people have burned



Understanding Friends With Cancer

I recently had a conversation with someone whose good friend was diagnosed with cancer. She hoped that the cancer wouldn’t change their friendship, but it did. The change, though, was temporary. As she told me, “My friend had to go through a process to come to terms with her cancer – I just didn’t understand