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5 Mindful Ways To Support a Loved One On Their Cancer Journey

Written by Molly Schreiber, Founder and CEO of Challenge to Change

Celebrating my last day of radiation!

This article comes from the real-life story of Challenge to Change Founder and CEO, Molly Schreiber, who has been navigating a cancer journey. This is a piece of her story.**

Statistics say that most of us know someone or have loved someone who is navigating cancer. Chances are we have felt a strong desire to support this person, but we are unsure of how.

After a recent breast cancer diagnosis, which led to surgery and radiation, I have been on the receiving end of the yearning to offer love and support. I have been blessed to have so many people express their love to me through notes, gifts and actions. I am truly grateful for every ounce of support I have received along the way.

Everyone is not always this lucky. Oftentimes, when people want to do “the right thing,” they often feel at a loss when it is not perceived how the action is intended, leading the caregiver at a loss of how to channel their love and support.

I can tell you, from a personal perspective, a cancer journey is a highly emotional and mentally challenging time. Your patient is physically, mentally and emotionally battling day after day with something you could never comprehend.

Through my own personal experience, I have been drawn to share my thoughts of supporting a cancer patient. After my first husband passed away tragically, I felt called to support young widows like myself and now I feel called to serve the same through this challenging experience.

Every cancer journey is a different, unique experience. It is very personal and physically assaulting. This list is from my perspective and may not fit the needs of your loved one battling cancer. However, they may be a good starting place for discussions as you traverse through the battlegrounds.

Please know this article is to help, not shame. Its intent is to give added ideas of support, not discourage. I always say, “when we know better, we do better.” This article is to help you “know better” from a first hand perspective so you can “do better” as you support your loved one. Please take from this blog what serves you and leave the parts that don’t.

#1: Let Them Guide

Everyone’s cancer journey is unique. Just like there are many types of cancer, there are many types of humans. Let your loved one be in control of their journey. Allow them to be at the wheel, driving the car in a direction that feels right for them instead of offering your own research and pushing them to do it “your way”. It is so supportive to educate yourself, but not for the purpose of telling them what to do. Cancer is a very intuitive journey where doing what feels right for the patient is essential, but our intuitive nature of wanting to “fix” things often gets in the way.

Radical Remission” or “Radical Hope” by Kelly Turner is a book that offers ten essential tools for the cancer patient. These ten ideas not only educate, but empower the cancer patient to make decisions not only to cure the disease, but move forward in a healthier lifestyle. I would encourage you to gift the book to them AND read it yourself. When I received my cancer diagnosis, my husband, who is a medical doctor, said to me, “you know what you have to do, Molly. Read the book.” My husband gifts this book to many of his newly diagnosed cancer patients. I am so grateful he didn’t try to take the wheel of my journey, but empower me- even with his extensive medical knowledge. I invite you to do the same.

#2: Put their Time First

The only thing worse than unsolicited advice is an untimely visitor. Always call or text ahead of time to schedule a visit. Your newly diagnosed cancer loved one is going through something you will never understand. It is not only a physical assault of the body, but a highly charged emotional time. Stopping by for an unscheduled visit is putting your needs and feelings first and not theirs. Oftentimes they need their alone time to grieve. If they tell you it is not a good time to visit, try not to take it personally as it has to do with their emotions and thoughts at the time.

Instead, support them from afar. The greatest gifts I received were ones that were unexpected and no expectations of talking or sharing were expected. Those great actions were a gift hung on my door knob when I got home from treatment, a flower delivery, a text message or picture sent to me through a message I could answer in my own time. I always say, if it is on your heart to reach out and send love, do it. However there are private, supportive ways to do so.

#3: Validating the Hard

Every type of cancer is different. It is different in presentation, diagnosis, experience, mental capacity and emotional experience. Allow them to experience it and share on their terms. When they do share, act with empathy. Do not try to change the experience they are going through by diminishing their experience through “at leasting” them. Here are some examples of “at leasting” I had during my experience:

  • “At least you don’t have a real serious type.”

  • “At least you only have to do five weeks of radiation.”

  • “At least you have a job that lets you take time off.”

Watching your language is important to allow them to experience and process this fragile time. When you “at least” them, you are only trying to make yourself feel better and are not acting in the best interest of their mental well being and emotional state.

Your job as a chosen advisor in their lives is to listen and support their family. My most empowered moments of my cancer journey were when people I loved from the past or perhaps had a falling out with, reached out and sent love to my family. Supporting a cancer patient is one of the biggest acts of empathy you will ever experience in your life. It is time to take off any jacket of selfishness and grudges and show up as your best self.

Some examples of validating language are: “That must be so difficult.” “You are not alone.“ And sometimes, listening in silence can be enough.

#4: Actively Listen with Non Judgement

Should is an “s” word that can easily be replaced by another “s” word. Don’t do either of them. Your cancer patient is needing to be supported and not broken down. Examples of ways I was “shoulded” on were: “You shouldn’t work during this time.” “You should ask your kids to do more for you.” “You should get a second opinion.” “Shoulding” disempowers the human. Again, it is often done with good intention, but there are other ways to express good intentions.

Allow your loved one to dictate the conversation. Allow them to speak and only respond. When my husband passed away, all I ever wanted people to say was, “that sucks.” I found these were the only words I wanted to hear from people when I deeply shared my experience with them. It does suck, and your job as a supporter is not to change that experience, but support them through this time.

#5: Model a Positive Mindset

We all have egos and our ego's job is to keep us safe. Supporting someone going through cancer can be an uncomfortable time and we may not know what to do or say, so we talk about ourselves. We share our negative experiences to fill the void. My friends, only share when you are asked by the cancer patient. And when you are asked, keep your stories short and more upbeat. This is not the time for doom and gloom.

It is a time of sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. My friends knew that I am led to be a person of positive nature. I chose to only surround myself with people who would bring that into my life. During my cancer journey, I set up strong boundaries in conversations and interactions with people who often “needed” things from me. I only wanted to be lifted up during this time, not drawn down. I would encourage you to pause before saying, sending or doing anything for your cancer patient. Ask yourself, how can I make this message be more sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. That little pause can change the outcome of your loved ones day.

I see you and I honor you, friends.

Molly Schreiber


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