In 2020 alone, roughly 1.8 million people in the USA will be diagnosed with cancer. With such a high case rate it’s not unlikely that at some stage this disease will affect everyone; one way or another. Dealing with cancer is emotionally, physically, and psychologically grueling. But this illness isn’t only tough on the person who’s sick; it takes its toll on those who love them too. 

When faced with the diagnosis of someone you love, you and your family need to support each other. The following advice will help you navigate the way forward together.  


Be Open and Honest

Even if you’re not a close-knit family, communication that’s honest, transparent, and considerate will make this time somewhat easier.

Talk it out:

The adage that honesty is the best policy certainly applies here. Don’t treat the illness as the elephant in the room; discuss it. 

If you can keep the air clear you’ll be able to express your emotions, share your worries and make decisions about what needs to be done. 

Act with kindness and consideration:

If you disagree with how someone has reacted or with the sufferer’s decisions about their treatment, that’s allowed. You can express your opinion, but do so in a kind way and know when to stop pushing the issue. 

Accept and embrace coping mechanisms:

A 2013 study showed that family members of cancer patients were at an increased risk of depression, so coping mechanisms must be put in place. Some family members will turn to yoga or meditation, others will need to process their feelings with a therapist. There are also support groups run by oncology social workers that welcome both patients and family members. These groups can be a wonderful source of strength for anyone struggling to cope.


Be Prepared for Anticipatory Grief

Harvard Medical School doctors have recognized that the stages of grief may not be sequential. This means that during times of uncertainty, you can get locked into a cycle where you’re mourning the potential loss of your relative while simultaneously hoping for their recovery. That’s usually as exhausting as it sounds, and the emotions you experience are similar to what you might feel when a loss actually occurs.

They include:

    • Anxiety
    • Sadness
    • Denial
    • Anger
    • Acceptance
    • Depression

Often there’s an overwhelming desire to make what might be your last few times together count and to say everything you need to. Anyone going through anticipatory grief might struggle with this as they’re having trouble managing their conflicting emotions.

The key takeaway is to remember that in this situation, anticipatory loss is normal. Don’t be surprised if you or other family members feel this way, and don’t expect anyone to just get over it. Try to pick up the slack when someone else is having a bad day, and trust they’ll do the same for you.


Assign Tasks

When someone in the family is sick it’s not only their daily life that can be turned upside down. You’ll need to talk over who will be responsible for specific tasks and these can be separated as follows: 


Trips to doctors’ offices and treatment facilities need to be scheduled, and the person who’s responsible needs to be able to cope with the patient physically. Chemotherapy or radiation can leave them feeling weak, and they’ll need someone to lean on, or help them in and out of the car.

Medical Care:

Talking to specialists and healthcare professionals can be overwhelming, especially in light of the amount of information they impart. Cancer sufferers may be fatigued or too overwhelmed to take it all in, so having someone who can understand, ask questions or take notes will be hugely helpful. 

The assigned person can also be responsible for ensuring the correct medication is administered and liaise with the family about treatment plans, progress and prognosis


If you are intending to look after the patient at home you’ll need to decide what equipment is required, if other family members will contribute financially to their care, or if a caregiver will be employed to offer relief. Caregiving, especially the palliative kind, can be a full-time, emotionally taxing job and this needs to be recognized and planned for.

Daily Needs:

If the person undergoing treatment becomes unable to pick up kids, go grocery shopping, cook, or perform their other normal activities, they’ll need assistance. Drawing up a roster with responsibilities clearly outlined will help the whole family know exactly what’s needed on a practical level.


Prepare for the End

Planning for death can seem macabre, but the reality of the situation is that it might well come to that. Your family member deserves to discuss their funeral, hospice care and do-not-resuscitate (DNR) wishes while they’re healthy enough to think the matters through.

Take time to go over their will and other legal documents and make sure someone has been granted health care proxy or power of attorney. If their cancer worsens and you need to prepare yourselves to say goodbye, their end-of-life directives and all related paperwork should be under control.

As taxing as going through the experience of a family member having a terminal diagnosis is, one advantage is that you can plan their funeral or memorial in accordance with their wishes. Discuss the kind of service that they want, what kind of music they’d like, and what sort of tributes they’d prefer. If you plan a funeral or memorial together it can feel far more meaningful and you can truly honor your loved one.

Be sure to prepare for the financial side of the funeral too by investigating the requirements and the average cost of burial insurance. Some insurance policies don’t require any physical exams, which can be more suited for someone who has cancer. 

Alternatively, you might need to decide what portion of the final costs everyone will cover. Discussing money at this time may seem inappropriate, but funerals can be costly and a family may need to share the burden.


Closing Thoughts

Research shows that family members have an important role in managing long-term illness, and that a family-centered treatment approach may be more beneficial to the patient. Essentially, it’s better for everyone if you’re able to support each other.

Above all, be calm and even-tempered. Your family has been put in an extreme situation and there’s no standard response. Everyone is going to make mistakes but if you’re kind and understanding you can ease the transition and support each other as a unit.



As an editor, Ellen Klein covers topics such as financial management and risk management, as well as health-related topics. She’s a realist and believes that planning for life’s unknowns is best. When she’s not busy with volunteer social work, she can be found scribbling away at her keyboard.