How To Support A Loved One Who Is Ill

by Kim Foster, MD

Is someone you love going through a major illness? Perhaps they’ve been diagnosed with cancer. When my father was told he had prostate cancer, he was so addled with anxiety and confusion at all the information being thrown at him and the choices he suddenly faced, it was very difficult for him to even hear what his doctor was saying, let alone make decisions.

So I went with him to his medical appointments and helped him decipher what was being said. And you can do the same thing. Granted, I have a medical background, but it was not necessary. What he really needed was someone else there, in the room with him, providing support. Accompanying your loved one to medical appointments is one 
of most helpful things you can do. Doctor’s visits can be overwhelming and bewildering. I know most people only hear a fraction of the things medical professionals say when we’re discussing intense issues, and the rest sounds something like Charlie Brown’s teacher. There’s a lot of information coming out, all at once, and a support person will hear things patients themselves miss. 

Bring a notepad. Write stuff down. Ask questions. Or, at least, jot them down so you can discuss them together later and bring them up at a future visit. Ask for further resources—specific places you can go to get reliable information. 

It’s important to help your loved one cope with distress and confusion at this trying time...but don’t forget to deal with your own emotions and your own stress. Caregiver burnout is a common phenomenon. But be careful—try not to dump your emotional needs on the family member you’re trying to support. Instead, lean on someone else, so you can be strong for your loved one. This is how a chain of support is created. 

Bio: Dr. Kim Foster is a family physician, writer, and mom. She has been practicing medicine for 13 years, and makes regular TV, radio, and speaking appearances. Online, you can find her blogging about healthy living at and

In 2003 Dr. Kim’s own father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent a radical prostatectomy in that same year and, happily, has been healthy and cancer-free ever since.

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