How to help someone you love when they’re dealing with an illness…

Several years ago, my cousin Siobhan was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, I had no idea what I could possibly do to help her. There were thousands of miles between us so I couldn’t just show up with a pie or a casserole…or even a shoulder to cry on or ears to listen. I was at a loss…until 10 Days of Zucchini was born.

For ten days in a row, I posted ridiculous photos of my dog dressed in costumes to give Siobhan a wee smile during an incredibly stressful time. It was silly…but it was SOMETHING…and daily, Siobhan and I had something to chat about. During those days, we were awaiting the diagnosis and it was the least I could do to show her I cared. The posts themselves gained plenty of attention and folks joined in with their encouraging words, good wishes, and prayers during such a difficult time.

The diagnosis…it wasn’t so great…and after a few surgeries and plenty of treatments, I’m happy to say that five years later, Siobhan is now doing fantastic! (Read more about her story, here.)

Photo Credit: Allyfotografy Media Co.

What I learned from Siobhan’s cancer is that it’s HARD to know what to do when someone you love is faced with illness whether you’re living in the same city or miles away. However, you HAVE to check in…you can’t bury your head in the sand as all you end up doing is isolating the person who needs you the most.

Currently, I have another cousin, Suzanne, who is battling through a fairly new diagnosis with MS and again, I’m at a loss. How do I help? How do I comfort? What do I say without sounding insensitive? How can I let her know that I care when the reality is…I think of her daily.

Here’s what I’ve learned from both Siobhan and Suzanne:


Listen, listen, LISTEN! And…don’t assume you know what the other person is going through if you’ve never been in their shoes. Don’t try to offer solutions or compare things you’re going through to what they’re going through as YOU AREN’T GOING THROUGH IT! All you can really do is offer your support…lend an ear…encourage your loved one as you listen to their fears and disappointments and keep the conversation private so they know they can trust you to LISTEN to them! (Side note: I checked with both Suz and Siobhan before writing this blog!)

Keep your Advice to a Minimum

It’s hard not to offer advice but when there’s a team of doctors and professionals involved…unless you happen to be a specialist in the field that your loved one is dealing with…your googled medical advice is not so important as the thing is, much as they may be sharing with you…you likely don’t know it all! If you’re asked your opinion, remember who you love…how they’re feeling…what’s going on in their life both physically and mentally before you throw out your suggestions. Basically, chances are, you’re not really equipped to be offering advice about their physical health but can do A LOT for their mental health by simply being a sounding board.

Stay in Touch

One of the things Siobhan found most difficult was feeling isolated. Feeling like folks were shying away from her as they didn’t know what to say or didn’t want to share their personal news, be it good OR bad, as she was battling cancer. But the thing is…you HAVE to make the effort no matter how uncomfortable you may be feeling or a fear of saying the wrong thing (it’s sometimes hard to remember that it’s not about you!) A simple note to say “I’m thinking of you” whether you pop a card in the mail, send a note with flowers, or post a message on social media…it might just be the one moment that brightens a loved one’s day. Sometimes, making the first steps towards conversation, as difficult as it may be…puts everyone at ease and allows for continued conversation moving forward on ALL topics, not just about their health!

Do Something EXTRA

If you’re in the same town…drop by for tea, go for a walk, cook a meal, go for a drive, go shopping together or offer to shop for them…do something, ANYTHING that will ease some burden when they’ve enough on their plate. If you’re not in the same town…send jokes, send flowers, PHONE the person you love…do something, ANYTHING that will show you care because likely YOU DO…you just don’t know how to show it but FIGURE IT OUT…as they need you now more than ever before!

Research their Illness

Google is a wonderful thing and it doesn’t take a lot of time to research the symptoms your loved one is going through but again, don’t google to offer advice but to KNOW a little more about what you’re saying and what they’re telling you. Do a little research when you hear of a procedure or medication they’re about to take on…knowing what they’re going through will go a long way in supporting them. Recently, as Suz began a new procedure, I spent some time checking into it so I could have a better understanding of the process without having her explain it all to me. My job is to support…and sometimes, knowing is part of supporting.

Support their Cause

Both Siobhan and Suzanne have causes that are near and dear to their hearts and as they shared them on social media…I shared as well. If you’re able, support the causes that are important to those you love as it once again shows how important they are to you.

Siobhan was well looked after by the folks at Young Adult Cancer Canada and she’s been an advocate for them ever since.

Suz was involved in the MS Walk this year and will also be part of the walk in 2020.

Check out both links and if you’re able, I’d love it if you supported their charities.

Know when to Back Off!

And finally…know when to back off…and this one’s hard! While you’re in the middle of listening and doing and trying to be there…take the cues when you’ve gone too far. Know when your loved one needs a little space and don’t be offended if they need some time to themselves. Everyone deals with illness in their own way and each person processes things differently. If you’re waiting on news from the latest doctor’s appointment and they aren’t so forthcoming with sharing…WAIT…they’re still processing. Be there ready with a listening ear and a loving heart when the time is right as they’ll need your optimism to help support them through some of the rough days.

What I learned MOST from my cousins as they’ve battled through illness…is that I come from hard stock! These two women have bravely faced one thing after the next with strength and positivity. They’ve shown great courage and a zest for living their very best lives. I’ve watched in awe as they’ve put their health first…taken to nature, surrounded themselves with love and worked to be strong enough to take on the rough days while enjoying the good ones.

Both are inspiring…and I’m ever so lucky, to be part of their lives.

Do you have tips for supporting a loved one through an illness? Add them in the comments below.

3 Replies to “How to help someone you love when they’re dealing with an illness…”

  1. Amazing tips! I feel like this is exactly what I needed to read, as we have a family member in the hospital and I’m at a loss as to how to support both that family member and also his wife. I definitely feel like staying in touch is something I need to focus on, as well as knowing when to back off. Thanks for sharing!