Health Secondary Story

Sue Ann Says: How to Help a Loved One with a Life Changing Diagnosis

One evening you call your loved one on your cell phone. “How are you?” you ask. “I’m not doing well,” your loved says in a soft voice, “I got my diagnosis from the doctor today. She found a mass in my liver. I am going to need surgery. They are scheduling the biopsy next week.” You pause, quiet for a moment and then blurt out “Oh gosh. I am sorry.” Later you realize you could have said more and been more prepared to help your loved one with this devastating news. How do you know the right thing to say? It could be easy to say, “I know how you feel” when in fact you don’t. You don’t know how your loved one is coping right now. You don’t know if she is feeling scared, hopeless, stressed or angry. Many of us will know someone in our family or one of our friends that will be given a heart-breaking diagnosis. Today I want to share with you suggestions and thoughts on how to respond and support your loved one throughout this difficult time.

First Response Needs to Show You Care

While hearing your loved one is ill, you need to let them know that you care without trying to give advice on what she needs to do. Don’t’ start rambling off herbal cures or explain how she needs to change her diet. Simple statements like “I’m keeping you in my thoughts,” or “If you want to talk, I’ll be here to listen,” open the door for a conversation if your loved one feels like talking at that time. Let her know you are there by saying “Let me know how I can help,” but don’t race over to her house unless she feels she is up to seeing you at that moment.

When in doubt on what to say, it is fine to tell your loved one “I am here to listen, but I am not sure what you want to discuss. Please tell me how I can support you.” This allows your loved one the option to share only what she wants to at this time or even let’s her say “I don’t feel like talking right now.”

Listening with your ears and body

It is important to realize that your loved one will be going through mental and physical changes during her illness. She may have an incurable disease that will change her daily activities, diet and lifestyle. Take the time to just listen. Don’t interrupt. Let her share her fears, or her anger. Keep your body language open to suggest you are there for her. Use your eyes and look at your loved one when she talks to show you care. Looking at your phone, watch or around the room will show you are uncomfortable and want to leave. If you paraphrase what she says, it shows you are listening and recognize her feelings that day.

Six Supportive Steps

  1. Surprise her with a trip for a walk in a park with a stop for coffee or a treat when you are done. If she is up to a longer excursion, a dinner and a movie (or play) might be a wonderful night out together.
  2. Send your loved one a card. Write a thoughtful note or a poem from her favorite poet. If your loved one has a lengthy illness, unexpected cards that show you care are welcome.
  3. Find out if your loved one has a special diet. Cook something that meets her dietary needs and drop it off in a throw away container. If she feels up to it maybe you can stay and have dinner with her. If she does not feel like eating, you could drop off a book from her favorite author with a colorful bookmark. Think outside the box for a small but useful gift. If she has to travel to the doctor, a gift card for gas may be just the thing.
  4. As you run your errands, call and see if she needs a prescription picked up, a grocery item, or something from the mall. She may not feel up to running errands.
  5. Help with the children in the family. Pick them up after a school event, take them to a dental appointment, or drop them off at a birthday party. Spend time with them, as they too are going through a challenging time and may need someone to talk to or just goof around with them. Hugs will show you care.
  6. Use humor when appropriate. We all need to laugh because it can help reduce stress. Can you joke about something silly you did at home, or share a funny animal video on your phone?

Let Your Love One Set Times to Visit

Let your loved one set times to visit by calling ahead. She could have side effects from medications and may not want you coming unexpected. Always ask “What can I do to help today?” Your loved one needs you now more than ever and by asking how you can help you can show your love, support and stand strong with her through this journey.

Because it all beings with a healthy woman…
Sue Ann Thompson is founder and president of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF), a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to help Wisconsin women and their families reach their healthiest potential. WWHF provides programs and conducts forums that focus on education, prevention, and early detection; connects individuals to health resources; produces and distributes the most up-to-date health education and resource materials; and, awards grants and scholarships to women health researchers and related community non-profits. To learn more, visit or call 1-800-448-5148.

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