Cancer and mental health: 6 ways friends and family can help

If you know a young person going through cancer, you might be wondering how to support them with their mental health at what can be an incredibly tough time. Dr Daniel Glazer, a clinical psychologist based at University College Hospital in London, talks us through what you can do to help.

Dr Daniel Glazer, a clinical psychologist based at University College Hospital in London

Whether you’re a friend or family member, you might have questions about how best to support the mental health of a young person with cancer. Here are a few ideas of what might help with someone you are supporting in helping them through this difficult time.

Recognising your own knowledge

When meeting with friends and family members of a young person with cancer, my starting point is always to consider what knowledge, skills and experience they already have in supporting that person.

In doing so, questions I might ask are: “What ideas do you have about what the person you are supporting needs now?” or “If they were here now, listening  to our conversation, what would they say they needed?”

In response, I have heard parents say, ‘once we get home and they have their space I think their mood will get a bit better’; or a friend has said, ‘we usually sit down and do something creative when either of us have had a hard time, maybe I’ll do that’.

As the people who know the young person with cancer best, you will undoubtedly have some important perspectives on what might be needed to support their mental health. Considering your knowledge of the person you are supporting can be an important place to begin if you are wondering how best you might be able to help.

Staying connected

What young people with cancer often tell us is that when people stay connected, it can make a real difference to their sense of loneliness and isolation. It can be hard to know what to say when someone else is having a hard time. Often though, it’s not what you say but just being present (virtually or physically) that can make a difference. 

Knowing that important people are still there thinking about you can help someone feel that they are a priority and that they matter. This can make all the difference if someone is feeling like they’ve had enough or is in distress.

The power of listening

There is no absolute right thing to say to someone experiencing cancer and having a hard time. Some young people will like to be asked how they are, others will not like that question at all. Some will want to be asked about their experiences, others would prefer conversations to centre on the same stuff that has always been talked about.

Rather than focussing too much on what to say, one of the most powerful tools we have is to listen.

Listening is so powerful and actually much harder than we assume. For example, if a young person is saying “I hate looking at myself in the mirror with no hair”, understandably our first desire will be to find a solution in order to make it better and take away their pain and distress. 

However, for young people (and most of us), solutions are not always what we want in the moment. Rather than giving advice, strategies or trying to make it better, it might be helpful to start by simply acknowledging the experience. For example: “It’s hard to see yourself in the mirror looking so different”. You might also want to stay curious and ask a question: “What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror?”

This approach doesn’t mean that you can’t give advice or try to make it better – these things are important too. Sometimes though, even the best advice will only be heard or taken up after someone feels that their experience has been heard and acknowledged.

Helping them hold onto their identity

When cancer comes into a young person’s life, it can come to dominate their identity. With all the hospital visits, treatments and feeling so unwell, important aspects of a young person’s identity can often move from centre stage to supporting characters. 

This idea formed the foundation of the ‘Beads of Life’ project at UCLH, where young people are invited to use beads as prompts to tell stories of their preferred identity. Through these conversations, we have heard about young people’s music, artistic and sporting talents. The importance of family, cooking, gaming, the routine of school or taking the dog for a walk with a friend.

Young people staying connected to their preferred identity can be important for their mental health and getting through their treatment.

In helping a young person achieve this, consider what you would usually do to help someone stay connected to a value or something that is important to them. How might you help the young person stay connected to this during their treatment? What could you be doing more of or less of? What conversations could you be having or what would you be doing differently?

To talk or not to talk

A well-known psychologist once said, “don’t take away someone’s coping strategy if you don’t have anything better to replace it with”. I often remind myself of this when meeting young people with cancer, especially when I’m faced with a young person who doesn’t want to talk about their experience and just wants to get through it. 

In these situations, it’s so important for the young person to be able to take the lead on how they respond and cope. This can be hard for parents or carers who see the young person struggling and desperately want them to access help. My view is not to push it at these times – for some young people, just getting through the experience without thinking too much about it is what they need to do. As mentioned above, here it can be important to stay present, listen and help a young person stay connected to what’s important to them.

Final thoughts: looking after yourself

As a friend or family member of a young person with cancer, you will also likely be finding things tough at times. In order to have the capacity to look after another person, it can be important to also consider what you need to be able to cope and manage.

This might mean having someone who can be present and listen to you, or staying connected to something that helps you feel more balanced. Many friends and family members have spoken about feeling guilty just thinking about doing something for themselves, or not having the time or headspace to do an activity that previously they found enjoyable.

You are not alone if you feel like this. You are also not alone if you feel you do need some time for yourself in order to be able to cope and manage.

I have heard about parents appreciating a short walk, going swimming, doing a virtual exercise class, reading a book, going for coffee or meeting a friend. Looking after yourself could be one of the most important things you can do to support the mental health of your loved one going through cancer treatment.

If you’re a young person going through cancer and you feel you’re struggling with your mental health, please do speak to your clinical team, Teenage Cancer Trust Nurse or Youth Support Coordinator. They’ll do whatever they can to help you, which may include referring you to specialist support.

We have information on who to contact if you or someone else is in crisis and needs urgent help or further support.