How To Support a Family Member Going Through Cancer | Keck Medicine of USC

How To Support a Family Member Going Through Cancer

A cancer diagnosis can take a toll on a patient and their family members. Learn how you can offer support during this challenging time.

Dealing with cancer means more than addressing the physical side of the disease. There is also an emotional side of cancer that takes just as much — if not more — time, energy and attention to heal. Understanding this can help you better care for your loved one.

Here are some recommendations to offer help and support to a loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer.

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(800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273)

You are not alone.

Share that you are thinking about your family member; it builds camaraderie and lets your loved one know that they are not alone. Find a time to visit or write feelings that are to express in a note.

It’s also okay to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I support you.” The point is that your loved one knows they are not facing this alone.

“Everyone deals with a cancer diagnosis differently,” says Jason Ye, MD, a radiation oncologist at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center of Keck Medicine of USC and assistant professor of clinical radiation oncology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Some patients, especially men, may become more withdrawn and express feeling scared or depressed through anger,” Ye explains.

“It is important to know that they are not angry with you and not to take it personally, but to give them space, while letting them know you are available.”

Take your cues from your loved one.

Maybe the person doesn’t want to talk. Or, perhaps, that person needs to analyze the situation out loud. Maybe your loved one needs a temporary escape.

Be sensitive to the cues from your loved one, so that you can help the person deal with cancer in a way that is best for them.


Unless you have had cancer, it is hard to understand the wave of emotions that a person experiences when dealing with the disease. Having someone listen, without providing commentary, can be cathartic for your loved one. Likewise, don’t minimize your loved one’s experience, as it is different for each person.

“Similarly, while everyone wants the best for their loved ones, they must respect the patient’s wishes, regarding their care,” says Ye. “Ultimately, it should be up to the patient to decide what happens to their body, and they need to feel they are in control of the disease not the other way around.”

Show affection.

Being thoughtful about someone’s needs and wants is always welcome, so show up with a favorite magazine or movie. Be generous with your hugs and compliments. Bring him or her dinner or snacks. Do errands and chores that might be challenging for your loved one to do.

Offer hope.

Fighting depression, anxiety and hopelessness is difficult to do alone. While downplaying the situation is not productive, it is okay to sympathize and encourage your loved one, when needed. Simply staying connected is one of the best ways to offer hope.

Keck Medicine facilitates several support groups, to help you or a loved one address the emotional side of a cancer journey. Call (323) 865-3150, for more information.

by Heidi Tyline King

For 40 years, the National Cancer Institute has recognized USC Norris at Keck Medicine as one of the leading comprehensive cancer centers in the country. If you are in the Los Angeles area, make an appointment, by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting