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How to support a cancer carer

21 March 2016

Paula Madden – colorectal nurse consultant at Beating Bowel Cancer – explains how to support someone whose loved one is battling cancer.

Woman bringing a home-cooked dish to a neighbour.
The things that help are things like people dropping round food for you, says Paula Madden

Research by the charity Beating Bowel Cancer highlights the hidden anguish of families and friends of thousands of bowel cancer patients in the UK.

The study shows bowel cancer doesn’t just affect those going through the disease, but also hits loved ones hard – leading to sleepless nights, fear, loneliness and even guilt.

Related: Support for families with a loved one being treated for bowel cancer

Do remember

It can be the little things that count. Paula says: “The key people are around the spouse supporting the patient and sometimes they can find it hard knowing what role to play.

“From what patients tell me and from my own experience the things that help are things like people dropping round food for you.

“Often people will think it’s nothing but really that sends a message to the carer that they are thought about, that they are cared about and this will take one thing off their list of things to do.

“It frees them up to be able to have time with their partner, to be able to talk to them, about what’s happening to them and their family and how they can make plans to make that better.”

Don’t worry about saying the ‘wrong’ thing

“Friends have got a key role but what often happens with friends is that they dwindle away because they don’t know how to help, they think they’ve got to be a counsellor, they think they’ve got to say the right thing, that they can never say the wrong thing,” Paula says.

“Actually just acknowledging what’s happening and providing these tokens of help or coming over is all that’s needed.”

Don’t be vague

“One of the things that can be frustrating is that people will say ‘ring me when you need something’. As the carer you feel as if you’ve got to carry on and do everything yourself so you’re not going to call them.

“But when the person comes to the door and says what do you need help with today, what do you need this week it’s much more practical because you can say well I don’t know how I’m going to manage doing the shopping and picking up my daughter, can you do one of those?

“It’s more likely that you will use that kind of offer because it feels like it’s more meant – it’s there and it’s present and it’s hands on – what can I do that will help you right now?”

Do just be there

Paula says: “Often when you’re in a position when you just don’t know what to do and how to cope, sometimes just a friend sitting there with you allowing you the time to think and talk things through for yourself will help you to think of some practical solutions.

“Sometimes you know what you need to do to help yourself but you just haven’t had the time out or a safe place to think through that, so friends may feel that they haven’t really said anything or done anything to help but letting them know they have allowed you that space and time to do that has helped.

“A lot of people find it difficult to know what to do to help and what to say. Acknowledging your pain and grief is enough for some people.” 

For more support and information, visit the Beating Bowel Cancer website.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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