Sanlam, in collaboration with the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), has developed a support guide to equip family and friends with advice on how best to support a loved one fighting cancer. This guide is based on feedback from cancer patients and survivors about the kinds of support they received or wanted to receive during their treatment.
In South Africa, 1 in 4 people is affected by cancer either directly or through diagnosis of a friend, family member or colleague. Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the country, with an incidence rate of 1 in every 8 women.
Dr Marion Morkel, Chief Medical Officer at Sanlam, says that this means that many people will have to go through the emotional experience of watching someone they love battle with cancer. “It’s often difficult to come to terms with the reality of the situation and to know what to say and how to act.”
Insight from cancer survivors
Dr Morkel shares some of the insights that cancer survivors listed, across the areas of emotional, physical, financial and lifestyle support:
To be treated like a human and not like a disease. “As surreal as it may feel, you need to try to treat a loved one ‘normally’ and not like a patient,” explains Dr Morkel.
Let your loved one talk, even if what they say makes you sad or uncomfortable.
Listen and don’t judge, even if you disagree. Ultimately, decisions are not yours to make. Gently offer your opinion if it’s asked for.
Be practical by offering tangible support, like looking after the kids or doing the dishes.
Honest conversations are needed
Dr Morkel says that many people tiptoe around a loved one, unsure of whether to engage on a deeper level. However, responses from cancer patients and survivors show that tough, frank conversations are necessary.
One patient said, “I needed an honest conversation about what lay ahead, and the possible path the cancer would take. Everyone is so kind and wants the best for you, but you’re not always given the chance to mourn the loss of your health.”
Respect their choices
Take the opportunity to mourn alongside a loved one – listen, engage and ask questions. If a patient makes a decision you disagree with, try not to be judgemental but rather accepting. Remember, these decisions are not yours to make, no matter how close you are to the person. You may also want to seek counselling if you feel like you need someone to talk to.
Offer practical support
The illness and treatment also have a massive effect on their body. This can escalate rapidly, rendering them unable to do simple things, like washing their hair in the shower. This presents an opportunity for family and friends to offer tangible and practical physical support, whether this be running errands or taking care of the kids.
If your partner is undergoing cancer treatment, don’t take on everything yourself. Ask friends for support. Hire someone to do the housework. Investigate the cost of childcare, and consider whether a full-time caregiver is necessary. Often the small things matter the most; one patient responded, “I wish someone had done my hair every day to help me feel human.”
Consider the financial implications
When a loved one is diagnosed, often friends and family forget about the considerable financial toll. For many people, asking for money is hard, so a cancer sufferer is often unlikely to seek monetary assistance, even when it’s needed. If you’re financially able to do so, pre-empt some of the costs by offering donations towards medicine, petrol, childcare and groceries.
“Cancer has been known to leave many families destitute, especially when there’s no medical aid, dread disease or income protection in place. One patient said she needed to travel 360km every three weeks for chemotherapy. These travel costs and other expenses add up and even small donations can go a long way to alleviate financial distress,” says Dr Morkel.
Embrace the new journey
One cancer survivor recalled, “My friends and I made an outing out of wig shopping and we had lots of fun trying on different ones.” This support meant a lot to her. Hair loss, in women especially, can lead to depression and a feeling of inadequacy. Friends and family can help their loved ones to adapt to the new lifestyle by offering genuine compliments and by gifting hats and loose-fitting, comfortable clothes.
Don’t exclude them
While all support is well-intended, Dr Morkel cautions that some offers can be a little misguided.
For many patients, the most significant lifestyle support came from being invited to ‘normal’ everyday gatherings and events. Feeling excluded exacerbates feelings of being an outcast because of illness. By inviting a loved one to join in, you make him/her feel less like a patient, even if he/she can’t make it.
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