Advanced Cancer

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Sources of support

Support from friends and community

People with life-threatening illnesses have a strong need for other people in their lives. They need others to help them deal with their illness and its emotional effects. These people provide what is called “social support.” Patients who have social support are often better able to adjust to their situation.

Support can come from family and friends, members of a church, mental health professionals, support groups, or community members. Asking for support is one way you can take some control of your situation.

If you don’t get enough support from friends and family, look for it elsewhere. There are others in your community who need your companionship as much as you need theirs. The mutual support of others with cancer might also be a source of comfort. Check with your health care team or member of the clergy for resources in your community.

What else can friends do to help?

One of the first things a friend or family member will often say is, “What can I do to help?” You may be tempted to say, “Oh, nothing right now. We’re just fine.” You may turn down help because you want your privacy. Or you don’t want to feel like a burden. Or maybe you feel like you have all you can handle without having people around you right now.

Remember that people really do want to help, and you will likely need some extra help during this time. Your friends and family want to do things for you and support you. It allows them to feel less helpless and helps them feel as if they are a part of your life. Let them help you. Be as specific as possible about the kind of help you need. For example, ask them if they can give you a ride to the doctor on a certain day, or find out if they can help you with housecleaning, meals, yard work, or child care. There will probably be times when you won’t know what you need, but sometimes even just saying that will help them better understand what you’re going through.

Religious or spiritual support

Religion can be a source of strength for many people. Some find new faith during a cancer experience. Others find cancer strengthens their existing faith or their faith provides newfound strength. On the other hand, those who have never had strong religious beliefs may not feel an urge to turn to religion.

Spiritual questions are common as a person tries to make sense of both the illness and his or her life. This may be true not only for the person with cancer, but for loved ones, too.

Here are some suggestions for people who may find comfort in spiritual support:

  • A spiritual counselor can often help you find comforting answers to hard questions.
  • Religious practices, such as forgiveness or confession, may be reassuring and bring you a sense of peace.
  • A search for the meaning of suffering can lead to spiritual answers that can be comforting.
  • Strength through spiritual support and a community of people who are there to help can be priceless to the patient and family members.

For those who are interested, a minister, priest, rabbi, other clergy member, or a trained pastoral counselor can help you identify your spiritual needs and find spiritual support. Some members of the clergy are specially trained to minister to people with cancer and their families. Some hospitals have chaplains available to visit patients.

Ask your health care team about the resources available at your hospital. You can also contact your American Cancer Society to find out about sources of support in your community.

Support programs

Support programs exist in all kinds of formats and include one-on-one or group counseling and support groups. A support group can be a powerful tool for patients and families. Talking with others who are in situations like yours can help ease loneliness. You can speak without feeling judged. And you can often get useful ideas from others that might help you. The American Cancer Society can help you find many different support programs in your community.

Some groups are formal and focus on learning about cancer or dealing with feelings. Others are informal and social. Some groups involve only people with cancer or only caregivers, while others include spouses, family members, or friends. Some groups focus on specific types of cancer or stages of disease. The length of time groups meet can range from a certain number of weeks to an ongoing program. Some programs have closed membership and others are open to new, drop-in members. For those who cannot attend meetings or appointments, phone counseling is offered by some organizations.

Online groups are another option. Some people find online support groups helpful because they like the privacy it can offer. It may be comforting to chat with other people in situations much like yours, without having to share any more than you want to. But it’s important to remember that chat rooms and message boards are not the best source of medical information, especially if they are not monitored by trained professionals or experts. Each person’s situation is unique, and what helps one person might not be right for someone else.

Regardless of the group’s structure, you should feel comfortable in the group and with the facilitator. If you have any fears or uncertainties before entering a group, feel free to discuss them with the group’s facilitator.

Support in any form allows you to discuss your feelings and develop coping skills. Studies have found that people who take part in support programs often have an improved quality of life, including better sleep and appetite.

Caregiver support

People helping to care for someone with cancer need to take care of themselves, too. Taking care of oneself means taking time to do things you enjoy. It also means getting help from others.

Having the support of friends and family is critical to both the person with cancer and the caregiver. Caregivers often tend to feel isolated, depressed, anxious, and are less likely to reach out for help. Physical problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems, and fatigue have been linked to caregiving. Caregivers may not think much about it, but they can’t help their loved one if they don’t also take care of themselves.

Overwhelming concern for a sick loved one may be distracting. The caregiver may find there’s conflict between the needs of the patient, their own needs, and the needs of the family. Many caregivers forget to eat, don’t get enough sleep or exercise, and ignore their own physical health concerns. It’s important for them to keep their doctor appointments, get enough sleep, exercise, eat healthy foods, and keep a normal routine as much as possible. It’s also important that they not feel guilty or selfish when asking for help or taking time for themselves. By taking care of themselves, they are better able to take care of the person with cancer. This means taking time to do things they enjoy.

For more information on this, see What It Takes to Be a Caregiver, What You Need to Know as a Cancer Caregiver, and Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Last Medical Review: 02/07/2014
Last Revised: 03/06/2014