Cancer. It’s a word that bears a lot of weight when you hear someone talk about it. You might be the first to find out from your loved one, or you might be someone hearing about it in passing conversation. But that single word, cancer, strikes a chord every single time no matter when or where you hear it.
Now imagine that feeling, 1000x worse. That’s how it might feel for the person who hears it for the first time, when they are diagnosed. And that feeling doesn’t leave. Cancer is a life-changing disease that takes a huge physical and emotional toll on those who are affected and recovering from cancer is a long and difficult journey.
Supporting a loved one or a friend going through cancer is hard, but rarely do people think about how cancer survivors need continued support after they are done with treatments. While celebration is in order when chemotherapy and radiation is over with, it’s not the end for most survivors.
Before we get into how you can support your friend or family member who is recovering from cancer, we want you to know that the Y is also here for them. The Y and LIVESTRONG® have partnered to create a research-based physical and wellness program for cancer survivors, called LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA.
A long standing program at the Summit Area YMCA, LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA is a free, 12-week program that provides a free Y membership to cancer survivors for 12 weeks and with the help of Y staff trained in supportive cancer care, participants are able to build muscle mass, strength, flexibility and endurance. The small group atmosphere and caring staff provide a supportive community in which participants may also improve confidence, build self-esteem and find camaraderie.
Three new sessions will be offered this Fall at both the Berkeley Heights YMCA and Summit YMCA, branches of the Summit Area YMCA. The Summit YMCA will begin the Fall session of the program beginning September 10, while the Berkeley Heights YMCA will begin on September 17 and October 1. Pre-registration and medical clearance is required.
For more information, please visit www.thesay.org/livestrong.
Now, here are 9 ways you can help support the cancer survivor in your life:
1. It might not be you to help them, and that’s OKAY
First and foremost, one of the most important things is to not take things personally if your loved one or friend does not want your help. Remember, it’s not about YOU and support does not mean you have to be with them 24 hours a day. It certainly does not mean that you need to be the one and only person to help them recover. Cancer survivors experience a plethora of complicated feelings that they may not want to share right away with certain people. They might even feel angry or jealous of your health, and that’s understandable and normal. They might become introverted. Do not blame them, and don’t be upset if they refuse your help at first, they may not be ready yet. Each person experiences cancer differently, so just let them know that you are there when they do need you.
2. Tell them it’s OK to Express their Feelings
Whether it be anger or sadness, expressing these kinds of strong feelings help people to let go of them easier. It’s like when you need to eat a tub of ice cream and cry your eyes out after a bad breakup, it does feel a little better afterwards. Acknowledging and expressing feelings is a healthy way for cancer survivors to cope with their situation. Help them by letting them know you have open ears and a shoulder for them, or if they’d prefer to speak to someone else, they can sort out their feelings with family, friends, other cancer survivors, or a counselor. Alternatively, they can choose to write them down. Tell them that it’s okay to feel, and it’s okay to express those feelings.
“I couldn’t talk to my family and friends about cancer because they were healthy and never experienced what I was going through. That’s why the LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program was great because not only were we getting physically stronger together, but the other participants understood what I was going through because they also went through chemo or surgery. We were like part of this little cancer club and we bonded over it and it was beautiful. It helped me get through my feelings and cope with it all.” – Laurie, LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program participant, Berkeley Heights YMCA
3. Help them see the silver lining
Cancer is an emotional roller coaster that can both give hope and plunge them into darkness, sometimes all at the same time. Feelings like loneliness, depression, anger, sadness and more can overwhelm those recovering from cancer, and it can be hard to be positive. Be that pillar of positivity for them, and help them see the good in all the bad they may be experiencing. Help guide their thoughts to focus on wellness and how to take steps in being as healthy as possible.
4. Tell them they don’t have to act strong or upbeat if they don’t feel it
While positivity is great, if they are not feeling it, tell them that it’s absolutely okay. The popular term of “fake it until you make it” applies to many situations, but when strong emotions are bottled up and covered with a smile, this can cause undue stress, pressure, depression and more. Help them work through their feelings so that their happy feelings are genuine.
5. Do not dismiss the pain they feel, physically or emotionall
No matter what, do not dismiss how they feel. You might have a higher pain tolerance, maybe you personally don’t make a big deal out of discomfort or pain. But that is you. Whatever they are feeling, whether it is pain, sadness, anger, anything—do not dismiss it. Be an active listener because if they are telling you about how they feel, it’s because they trust you and because they feel you are someone who will support them in their time of need. Do not break this trust by saying unhelpful things like, “Get over it, it’s not that bad.” or “I thought you said you were feeling better, why does your ____ hurt now?” Wherever they might be on their wellness journey, it’s not up to you to determine or tell them how they should or shouldn’t feel. Just listen, and be there for them.
“Cancer has changed my life—not just my body and emotions, but my relationships with people in my life. It has removed some toxic people from my life, and has made me realize who are the people who truly love me and support me. There were times when people said to me, “C’mon, it can’t be that bad.” or “stop whining, Karen” when I was going through treatment and recovering. It might not seem like much now, but when I was going through it, those statements hurt.”
—Karen, LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program participant, Summit YMCA
6. Image isn’t everything, but accessories can do wonders
Cancer and its treatment can not only change a person’s physical appearance and strength, but in turn, can affect their self-image and self-esteem. Losing hair, losing weight, losing parts of their body—cancer can do a number of things to destroy self-confidence. If they are open to it, help your friends rebuild their body image by joining them in reinventing their look—go shopping together, try out new wigs, scarves, clothes, etc. Once you know what they like, feel free to do some shopping for a new birthday or holiday gift to help continue their journey to recovery.
7. Help them keep up with a daily routine
Whether it’s going to the gym, meeting up with friends or engaging in their hobbies, help your loved one keep up with their daily routine to achieve structure in their lives. After months or years of going to hospitals or being stuck in a wheelchair, returning to a sense of normalcy is tremendous in their emotional recovery from cancer. If they are unable to do some of the things in their old routines, help them adjust and establish new routines that they can look forward to.
8. Help them engage in hobbies they love, or discover something new
Cancer treatment can leave patients feeling weak and unable to engage in their previous hobbies. If they’re not strong enough to physically engage right away, use your power of positivity to help them engage in that hobby to best of their ability or help them make goals to get back to doing what they love.
However, be sure to set expectations. Nothing is worse than giving someone hope that they can fully do what they used to love doing and then failing to do so because of their current physical ability. Have a serious conversation first and let your loved one know that they may not be able to fully engage with their beloved hobby right away, and their might be a chance that they simply can’t do it anymore. Additionally, this might be a chance for them to discover new hobbies to fall in love with. Acknowledge that change is okay.
The key is to help them feel stronger so that they can one day do it on their own again. This might be physical therapy, this might be having them come up with ideas of how to do adjusted versions of their hobby, or it might mean helping them find a new hobby altogether. This may take time, but again, positivity and attitude is key.
And while establishing a routine is great, part of enjoying life and reinventing life after cancer is to try new things. Help your loved one discover a new hobby or activity to do. Oftentimes a part of overcoming the emotional impact of cancer is when survivors are able to find something new that they can invest themselves in.
“After surgery and chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, I was left bald, tired and scared. LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA helped me overcome my aversion to exercise and get back to being myself again. I loved being a part of the support group of survivors who like myself were impacted by cancer.” says Ann, another LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA participant. “The instructors were wonderful, motivating, knowledgeable and donated a lot of their time to helping us recover. I’m now enjoying Zumba and walking on the treadmill has made me feel better and I look more fit. I’m so happy to be exercising and doing something that I enjoy that makes me healthier and I’m grateful to the LIVESTRONG® program.”
9. Help them find work or volunteer opportunities
For cancer survivors, part of returning to a sense of normalcy may be returning to work and their previous jobs. If that is not an option, support your loved one by helping them find something they are interested in (if they are open to it), or find opportunities to volunteer together. Often times cancer survivors may experience low self-esteem and confidence due to isolation, self-image and more. By volunteering, individuals are able to set aside their own worries to help others in need. Not only does this provide volunteers with a sense of achievement and increase in confidence, but also gives them a feeling of community.
As a volunteer led, cause driven organization, the Summit Area YMCA provides a variety of employment volunteer opportunities for the community to engage in. From administrative functions to teaching, from mentoring to fundraising, from setting the strategic direction of the organization to event planning, and so much more. To volunteer with the Summit Area YMCA, visit www.thesay.org/volunteer or to begin a meaningful career, visit www.thesay.org/employment.
We hope that these tips can help you be the person your loved one needs during their recovery from cancer. Remember, the Y is always here to support our community in youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. If you know anyone with cancer or recovering from cancer, encourage them to join the free LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program, available at the Summit Area YMCA.
BERKELEY HEIGHTS YMCA Free 12 week session
Daytime session begins: October 1 – December 19
Evening session begins: September 17 – December 5
WHERE: Berkeley Heights YMCA, 550 Springfield Avenue, Berkeley Heights, NJ
Pre-registration and medical clearance required.
Questions? Contact: LISA MCQUILKIN
BERKELEY HEIGHTS YMCA Wellness Director
(908) 464-8373 ext. 2026
SUMMIT YMCA Free 12 week session
Daytime session begins: September 10 – November 26
WHERE: Summit YMCA, 67 Maple Street, Summit, NJ
Pre-registration and medical clearance required.
Questions? Contact: SUE FIESELER
SUMMIT YMCA Director of Community Wellness
(908) 273-3330 ext. 1167
For more information, please visit www.thesay.org/livestrong.
About the Summit Area YMCA
The Summit Area YMCA is one of the area’s leading 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. Founded in 1886, the Summit Area YMCA has a history steeped in working side-by-side with our neighbors to ensure that everyone, regardless of age, income and background, has the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. Each year, we serve more than 10,000 individuals with our free and fee-based programs and services in an area spanning the communities of Berkeley Heights, Gillette, Millburn, New Providence, Short Hills, Springfield, Stirling and Summit. Through the generosity of our members, donors, and partners, we are able to offer financial assistance for our programs and services to those with demonstrated need.