Episode 057: How to Support A Loved One with Cancer

Episode 057: How to Support A Loved One with Cancer

There have been too many times when I’ve found out that someone that I cared about was diagnosed with cancer and I didn’t know what to say or what to do that would be appropriate and supportive.

I didn’t want to sound trite or generic. I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries, especially if it wasn’t a close family member. And I certainly didn’t want to be intrusive. But I genuinely wanted to do something, yet there were times when I ended up doing nothing.

In this episode, Katie Leadbetter, of Clean Eating with Katie, is back for her second of three episodes this month, this time, with some words of advice for anyone who has a loved one who is fighting cancer. Katie wrote a blog post titled, “Five Things You Can Do for Someone with Cancer” and in this episode, we discuss what those five things are and more!

Listen to the Episode: 

Click Here to Read the Episode Transcript...

Naomi: You're listening to The Live FAB Life Podcast, Episode 057.

I know there have been too many times when I found out that a family member, a friend, a friend of a friend, a colleague, or an acquaintance, someone that I knew who was diagnosed with cancer, and I just didn't know what to say or what to do that would be appropriate and supportive.

I knew that I didn't want to sound trite and I didn't want to sound generic. I didn't want to overstep my boundaries, especially if it was someone who wasn't a close family member, and I certainly didn't want to be intrusive.

But I genuinely wanted to do something or to say something that would make that person feel better if it was even possible, yet there were so many times when I just ended up doing nothing.

So in this episode, Katie Leadbetter of Clean Eating with Katie is back for her second of three episodes this month, and this time, she has some words of advice for anyone who has a loved one who is fighting cancer. It was about a year after her own battle with cancer, which she shared all about in the last episode, and if you haven't listened to it yet, please go back and listen to Episode 056.

So Katie wrote this blog post titled "Five Things You Can Do for Someone With Cancer". And in this episode, we discuss what those five things are and more. So let's get to the show.

Welcome to The Live FAB Life Podcast, where we have real and honest conversations from a bigger, functional perspective on health and dealing with the pressures of living in a fast-paced world. I know you're busy, so I won't take all day. Kick back for a few minutes, and get today's on the go tips of practical solutions for everyday healthy living. I'm your host, Naomi Nakamura, a holistic health coach and safer beauty advocate based in the San Francisco Bay area. Let's get started.

Hi, Katie. Welcome back to the show.

Katie: Thanks for having me again.

Naomi: I know. You're going to be on a lot this month. We have a lot to talk about.

Katie: Yes.

Naomi: So thank you so much for sharing your story last week. It was really powerful, and I learned so much from it. So we're going to continue our conversation, and today we're going to be talking about how to support a loved one through breast cancer. But as I was preparing for this and making notes, this really can apply to any type of cancer, and the reason I wanted to have this conversation is, I know for myself, whenever I have heard of a loved one or someone that I know recently diagnosed with cancer or even any other type of serious illness, you want to help out and you want to let them know that you're there for them, but you don't really know what to say, and you don't really know what to do, especially if you're not related or you're a really close friend, you want to be there to support them in any way that you can, but you may not really know how, and you also don't want to unknowingly be insensitive.

Katie: Totally. Totally. Yeah, so I definitely have been on both sides of this, like I've had people in my life who have been diagnosed, pretty much before cancer, there's a life without BC and after. That's how I divide my life. Oh, that happened before cancer, that happened after. But before cancer, I didn't know what to do, and I don't think I always did the right thing. I'm actually a hundred percent sure I didn't always do the right thing because I didn't know what to do.

Naomi: Right.

Katie: So I think the biggest thing is don't say nothing. Whatever you do, reach out in whatever way feels comfortable for you in that relationship that you have with that person. I had mentioned last time that I had emailed close friends and family and before telling the world, and I had some people in that email that didn't respond for quite a long time, and that hurt a little bit. And you know what? I'm trying to be a better person now, and I understand it's hard for everybody to process those emotions. Some people emailed me back right away, some people emailed me back a day or two later. It was texts, calls, whatever, but people didn't respond right away, and I didn't like that. Knowing now that it's also hard for them to process their emotions and I should be respectful of that too, even though I'm the one who is in the harder position. I can have some hindsight now and think, "They're processing what they want to say, how to reach out, what best support to give." And me, I've let those things go.

Naomi: Well, and also, they may have been in a position like me, they don't know what to say.

Katie: Yeah.

Naomi: Or you may not know what things that triggered in them personally as well.

Katie: Exactly.

Naomi: But to your point, you are the one going through the situation right then and there. So you recently ... I'm going to take that back. You wrote a blog post talking about five things that you can do for someone with cancer, so I would like for us to just talk through that post and talk about each of the five things pretty much in depth on what helped you the most and what insight you can give on them. And for those listening, I will go ahead and include a link to that exact blog post in the show notes. So if you're listening to this and you want to see exactly what Katie wrote in the moment, you can go over to my website at www.livefablife.com/057 where you'll find the show notes for this episode.

Naomi: So first of all, why don't you give us some context into ... well, you kind of already did, but anything you can add to what prompted you to write that post, and did you write it in hindsight, or did you write it as you were going through the moment?

Katie: So I wrote this after multiple occasions of people saying, "What do I do?" I was so public about what I went through that ... and then there are those people that are very private and did not want to share quite so much, so it felt a little bit different on how to reach out to those people. So I wrote this post to help any friends, family members, anybody who was struggling with how to help somebody.

So I think the first thing is to take their lead. I think, for me, I asked for walking buddies because I knew that I needed to get some movement in and I knew I didn't feel good every day, so I wanted to have people there with me. And I just felt a way to get that connection, get some movement, get some outside time, but it was free to everybody. It was flexible on time because my schedule was so open. So I think take their lead. Whatever they're asking for, follow that lead would be the easiest, most obvious.

Sometimes, people want meals. Sometimes, people ... it's really like meals and company I think are the biggest things that folks can ask for or are in need of. Rides to and from appointments is huge because you have so many, and sometimes you're not feeling good, or you're not feeling up to going by yourself, so having that company there with you ... and I mentioned before, lots of different folks going with me to different appointments so also it wasn't like my husband always had to take a day off. It eased the burden on his work schedule, and like I said, I was able to [inaudible 00:06:54] as well, so it kind of made it easier that one person wasn't responsible for shuffling me back and forth.

Naomi: I have a question related to that. I know that my first instinct, if somebody asks, "What can I do for you?" I always say, "Oh, I'm fine. We're good."

Katie: Right.

Naomi: And that may not always be the case, and they may not know how or feel like they want to burden someone else. So if someone does say that, do you just kind of respect them and let them go, or what do you recommend there?

Katie: I think it depends on your relationship with that person, but I think I probably said I'm fine to a lot people also. A lot of people asked to bring food, and I was like, "Oh, my diet is so restricted." Because I was really trying to keep it so restricted initially, and then I kind of eased up based on how I was feeling, and just, "That doesn't sound good." So I just kind of gave into it, but I think people pushed through too. I had a friend from high school who I hadn't talked to for probably ten years, send to me a handmade gift from across the country. Just random things that people sent because they were feeling compelled to let me know I was in their thoughts. Cards came from across the country. Things like that.

So I think a card is certainly a super easy way to extend your offer even further if someone says, "I'm fine." Because you can say, "I'd love to take you out to dinner." Or, "I'd love to bring you some food." Send you a meal from somewhere, like a Munchery gift card, whatever, something that's easy on both peoples' ends as well. They say they're fine, I would push further because they don't know what they don't know. They don't know what they're going to go through and what they're going to want just yet, so it's hard for them to know, and it's hard to take help. We are such an independent society that people often don't know how to receive help, it kind of puts you in this awkward situation, but everybody wants to do something. So it's kind of taught me a little bit of humility. Not that I wasn't appreciative before, but just, "Thank you." And not saying, "Oh no." You know how people will do that little dance? You'll say, "No, thank you." And they'll be like, "Oh, I insist." And you do that little dance back and forth?

Naomi: Yeah.

Katie: I stopped dancing at some point and just being like, "Okay, people want to support me in whatever way they can, so I'm just going to let them."

Naomi: And I like your point, too, if it's a, "Oh, I'm okay." Follow it up with a card, but then leave the door open because like you said, you don't know what you don't know. Two weeks, two months down the line, you may actually need something, and if we can help out, I'm sure everyone would be happy to.

Katie: Yeah, and I think just continuing to check in on them. They say, "I'm fine." You follow up with a card, check back in with them in a month. See how things are going. What do you need? What can I send you? Flowers were nice, all of those things were lovely to get especially when you're at home all day every day you kind of get bored, so it kind of brightens your day to get some of those things in the mail, even though, I was talking to my post, I'm not so much the gifts person, but it was really nice to get those things in the mail. I'm an act of service and quality time are my love languages, so that's kind of what I asked for was more of, "Can you walk with me?" "Can you take me somewhere?" That was what helped me, but everybody is different in their love language. So if you do know their love language, use that as a leverage point, certainly.

Naomi: I love that. Okay. Number two.

Katie: Okay, so I think I talked about that, just people continually, even just texts, reaching out to me throughout the whole process and asking how I was doing, how I was feeling, did I need anything, and sharing that burden with people was such a weight off my shoulders that it was nice to have all that company. So I really feel that there's no wrong way to go about it except for to not do anything.

Naomi: There's a couple of quotes that you included in this particular item. One is that, "Grief shared is halved. Joy shared is doubled." I really like that quote. And then also, "It's not about how uncomfortable this may feel for me, it's about being there for the person who you care about."

Katie: Yeah. It's awkward. There's lots of tears, lots of people crying, you have people give you a hug and ask how you're doing and you're just kind of crying. It's part of the process. You do feel uncomfortable because it's awkward, but you do it anyway. You know what I mean?

Naomi: Yeah. There's nothing comfortable about the whole process.

Katie: Yeah. The whole thing pushes everybody outside of what they know as normal, and comfortable, and kind of safe zone.

Naomi: Number three. And you just mentioned this. I really like this.

Katie: So my love language is acts of service-

Naomi: If somebody doesn't know what love languages are, can you just kind of share what that is?

Katie: I'm not going to remember the author of the book, but there's a book called The Five Love Languages, and it's by a therapist who really helps a lot of people with marriage counseling, and he basically ... his perspective is that people often done feel loved in their marriages, so really, what they're doing is they're communicating in different ways. So someone might be communicating in their love language, but it may not be your love language. So if I can remember the five, it's acts of service, quality time, gifts, words of affirmation, and physical touch. There we go.

Naomi: It's almost like a form of a personality test to know what resonates with you and to be able to know what someone else's is so that you have a better way of connecting and communicating.

Katie: Yeah. So the book was totally about marriage, but I've applied it to everything, because you really can. It's like, "Oh," I look at all these friendships and I'm like, "Oh, that friend always gives gifts. Their love language must be receiving and giving gifts." So it's like, "Oh, I'm not meeting their love language because that's not my love language." Gifts are lovely, but they're not my main thing, so it just helps me to look at all relationships in a different way, so I think knowing that people could, if you know the other person's love language, that would be a great way to help that loved one, but if you don't, I think any of those five things will help fulfill their overall love tank, if you will.

Naomi: And there's a quiz you can take online, I'm pretty sure it's free. I've taken it before. To find out what your love language is. But what are some of the things, since yours is acts of service, what are some of the things that people did for you that made you feel love?

Katie: So I had lots of specific acts of service. My mom came and helped me clean a couple of times, my best friend paid for her cleaner to come to her house. So it was an easy way for her to help, because she had a new baby, but also an act of service, lots of homemade meals and just meal deliveries from friends who were like, "I'm not a great cook, but I can pick you up something. I'm here. What would be a great option?" And then a walking buddy was a big thing. One of my good friends came and helped me put my Christmas stuff away, which was great because I just had surgery early in December, so your recovery is about eight weeks after that, so I couldn't put Christmas away, lift things and do all that, so she helped me with that. That was an awesome thing to do.

Naomi: That really is an act of service.

Katie: It is. Yeah. This was perfect for her because she absolutely loves organizing and cleaning and things like that, so for her, it was awesome. I know it wouldn't be great for everybody. And then being a walking buddy, that was the biggest one for me, because like I said, I wanted to stay active and make sure I got movement in, and I wasn't up for a lot of other physical activities, but that was one of them.

Naomi: Along the lines of love languages, I think our first nature is, "What can I get you? What can I give you?" So for someone who is going through cancer or any type of medical treatment, and they just aren't well, they aren't feeling good, and you want to get them something, what are some thoughtful gifts that people can give someone? That's always the thing, like, "What can I get them? I don't know what to do." So what are your suggestions there?

Katie: For me, I loved the stuff that was like the boredom boxes, I got a couple of those from friends, so it had a word search puzzle, crossword, adult coloring books, just something to keep me busy. Somebody got me some iTunes gift cards, which was great because I bought some books with them, and I think I even bought some-

Naomi: Oh, like audio?

Katie: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, so something to entertain me was really, really helpful. I liked that a lot. Food obviously was a top priority for me, so I got a couple of Whole Foods gift cards or Sprouts gift cards, things like that. And the homemade meals were amazing as well. My other two, I think, favorite things, things you don't think about, I had a lot of trouble with making my headscarf look cool. I had a good friend that could totally rock her headscarf, and it looked ... I don't know, I don't have those skills, she did. But one of my good friends just got me a square scarf from Nordstrom, and it was easy to tie and easy to wear and very lightweight and very nice, soft fabric because your scalp is kind of sensitive. So scarves are a great idea, but I think that square scarf from Nordstrom was the perfect scarf for me. Then my sister-in-law got me little, lightweight sleeping cap. I don't know what else to call it, it was, I think, the jersey material, because my head would get cold in the middle of the night because you lose your hair, your head's cold, and you don't really want a beanie, those are too heavy, you need something light. So this was from Amazon.

Naomi: And that's something, as women, we would never have ... we don't know what that's like, right?

Katie: No, yeah. So ... and at some point, I had to start sleeping with a scarf because I lost my hair, I had my hair shaved in July, so most of those months I was pretty warm and I didn't need the headscarf all night or I didn't need it every night, but as it got cooler, I definitely needed a headscarf, and then I would add the sleeping cap, and then I need a little lightweight scarf around my neck because my neck was so cold because I lacked any hair on my neck like I was used to. So those were really helpful just as practical gifts. If someone is going to lose their hair, those would be nice things to do. But for most folks who lose their hair, this is for anybody listening, insurance covers wigs and a lot of ... any of those are considered prosthesis at that point in time when you lose your hair, so your insurance should cover your wigs and maybe even headscarves depending on your insurance policy. So definitely inquire about that, ask your doctor.

The other thing that ended up being covered, I just want to put this out there while I'm thinking of it, was post-surgical bras from Nordstrom. So I was able to get all of that, wigs, headscarves, and post-surgical bras covered by insurance. So just things that you don't think would be covered. And the doctors don't tell you. I learned these from friends.

Naomi: Well I didn't know Nordstrom carried post-surgical bras, but that's good to know. And then yeah, that's a great tip, to find out what's covered by your insurance and what's not.

Katie: Yeah, definitely. Because these are things you wouldn't think of and not everybody tells you.

Naomi: Well and they're pleasant surprises because normally, we are usually grumbling and complaining about something not covered by insurance, but these are pleasant surprises.

Katie: Yeah, I was pretty stoked at the time. And then the last tip that I have on my blog is everybody who contacts me about this, and I mean, I have people contacting me probably a couple times a month knowing a friend or themselves being diagnosed and what do you do, what are some tips. Connect them to a cancer center in their area that provides mostly support for folks going through treatment-

Naomi: So what does that mean by support, because support can look like a lot of different things.

Katie: Depending on the cancer center, it would provide different things. So I went to Bay Area Cancer Connections in Palo Alto based on the recommendation of actually my doctor's office, they recommended them at first, but they offer support groups, which I went to. And they also offer counseling services for emotional, dealing with the grief.

Naomi: So support groups where you're with other patients and you're just supporting each other and sharing what you're going through and what your difficulties are and finding strength in each other?

Katie: Exactly. The nice thing about this one is Bay Area Cancer Connections is really focused on breast and ovarian cancer. That narrows the field a little bit as far as people can relate to what you're going through even more. At first, when I thought about doing this, I was like, "I'm obviously younger than most people going through this, so I don't want to go to a support group with women who have grandchildren because they cannot empathize." I can't empathize with their life and they can't empathize with mine, at least in this specific context. So they had a ton of different options, so I went to the young women's support group. They had a newly diagnosed support group, and the BRCA, the BRCA mutation group-

Naomi: Oh wow. They get really specific.

Katie: They do because you really are dealing with different stuff. And depending on the cancer center, they may or may not have all those specific ones, but I imagine they'll have ones that may fit your circumstances a little bit better than just ... when I originally thought about this, I thought, "Why would I want to talk to 65 year olds about this? They can't relate to my life."

Naomi: And to what you were going through as a 31 year old.

Katie: Exactly. Exactly.

Naomi: So besides group support, you said they had counseling. Was that one on one counseling?

Katie: I do believe. I never took advantage of the counseling, but they did have meditation classes on how to learn how to meditate, and I did meet with one of their staffers who helped me kind of decide my course of action for surgery. I was like, "There's all these options. I don't know what to choose." And she put together a couple ... some information for me so I could talk through the options a little bit more so that way when I went to my doctor's office, I could then have a little bit more understanding of what I was opting into or talking to the doctor about. So it's really not meant to replace what you're doing with your doctor, but I think it was a nice complement because sometimes I felt like I didn't know which questions to ask my doctor, so this helped me become more prepared for those conversations.

Naomi: That is a great resource to have.

Katie: Yeah, and they also have wigs, so I donated a bunch of my old stuff to them, wigs I don't need anymore, things like that. So they have a bunch of resources for those women who don't have the insurance that's covering their wigs, don't have the insurance that's covering some of the other ... I think I may have mentioned I had drains and you have to wear a drain camisole, I donated my old camisoles to them, figuring that there will be people that will need these camisoles at some point in time. So yeah, they have a ton of services. They have a huge lending library, and it's a great resource. They also put on a couple of conferences each year and fundraisers throughout the month of October, they do a ton of work. But there's other places in our area that do similar work, in the bay area. Cancer Care Point is actually in the south bay, so I'm not sure if there's anything else anywhere else in the bay area, but they offer free yoga, and free massage, and Reiki, and things like that. So a lot of these cancers will support you in ways that your insurance won't. And things ... it's still part of a more holistic approach to treating or going through cancer treatment I'll say.

Naomi: I didn't know this, and I'm really inspired to reach out and find out what they do and even how I can contribute.

Katie: Yeah. It's one of the places that, when I did the Facebook birthday fundraiser, I chose Bay Area Cancer Connections, and I give to them each year as a follow up for appreciating what I gained from them when I was going through treatment. And I know there are other things like this all over the country, I just don't know of them.

Naomi: But it's good to provide some context. If someone is thinking, "Well, why do I need ... I don't want to go to a support group." But it's a little bit more than sitting in a circle. There's a lot of resources there for you. And I really like how you said they helped give you perspective and helped you know what questions to ask as you're making decisions about your treatment.

Katie: Yeah. I will say this, I did not want to go to support group either. I was like, "I don't want to cry in front of strangers because I know I'm going to cry. I don't want to do that." And then I read about how the survival outcomes are increased in those going to support groups, and I was like, "Well fine, if my survival outcomes are increased, I'll go." So that's kind of what pushed me to go.

Naomi: Strength in community.

Katie: Exactly. Exactly.

Naomi: So just to do a quick recap, number one was to find out how you can help them, ask them what they need and be open to providing it. Number two was to check in and send calls, texts, cards, flowers, email, and just to really be there emotionally to support them. Number three is to find out what their love language is and support them in whatever that is. So for you, it would be acts of service. For me, mine is words of affirmation. So find out what ignites them. And then number four is to give them gifts that can help them through their process. And then number five, help them find support.

Katie: Yeah.

Naomi: Anything else to add there?

Katie: If you're not sure where to start, choosing one of these will at least get you started-

Naomi: And once you get started, you'll be able to see how you can personalize it for your particular situation that you're in with the person you're trying to help.

Katie: Yeah, exactly.

Naomi: Well thank you so much for sharing. We will have you back next week for one last episode, but until then, I want to thank you again.

Katie: You're most welcome. Thank you.

Naomi: If you enjoyed this episode, it would mean the world to me if you would subscribe to this podcast, write a review, or even share it with someone who you know would enjoy it too. In the meantime, you can find the show notes for this episode and all other episodes over on my website at www.livefablife.com. There, you can submit a question to be answered right here on the show, sign up for weekly updates, insider access, and get behind the scenes scoops, and learn how we can work together too. Most importantly, thank you so much for being here, and I can't wait to connect with you again on the next episode of the show. See you next week.


Naomi Nakamura is a Functional Nutrition Health Coach. Through her weekly show, The Live FAB Live Podcast, programs, coaching services and safer skincare solutions, she helps people with chronic skin issues clear up their skin by teaching them where food meets physiology and how food, gut health, stress, and toxins are intricately connected to the health and appearance of our skin. Naomi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can often be found romping around the city with her puppy girl, Coco Pop!
Connect with Naomi at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest