Supporting someone with bowel cancer
When a friend or loved one has cancer, it can be difficult to know how to help them. There are different ways you can support someone with bowel cancer, emotionally and practically.
Talking to your friend or loved one
Listening and sharing how you both feel are good ways of supporting the person you're caring for. It can be difficult to know how or when to start a conversation about how they feel. Sometimes you might not know what to say. Here are some tips to help:
- Be guided by them. They may not always feel like talking, for example if they're tired. They may not want to talk about their feelings at all
- Be there for them when they're ready to talk
- Don't feel you have to have all the answers. Just listening can be enough. Some topics are difficult to talk about but listening to what they want to say can help to reassure them
- Ask questions about what they want and listen to the answers
- Be careful about making jokes or encouraging them to be positive. They may feel that you’re not listening to them
- Avoid telling them about stories you've heard or other people you know with cancer. Everyone is different so other people's experiences aren't always helpful
- You don't always need to talk about cancer. Chatting about everyday things, doing activities or just sitting together can be enough
You're both likely to feel a range of emotions such as feeling stressed, upset or angry at times. Sometimes these feelings can seem out of control and your loved one may be tearful, irritable or detached. It can be difficult, but try to remember that it's often because they're upset with their situation rather than with you. Trying to understand how the person is feeling can help you both cope.
Ask them questions about how they feel. Avoid interrupting their answer, even if you disagree with what they're saying. This can help them to feel heard and understood.
If your friend or loved one is feeling very down or finding it hard to cope, encourage them to speak to their GP or specialist nurse. They may also want to speak to a counsellor. BACP has a register of counsellors and psychotherapists.
They can also contact the Samaritans at any time, day or night.
We have more information and support on emotional wellbeing for those affected by bowel cancer on our website.
10 practical tips for supporting someone with bowel cancer
It can be difficult to know how to best support someone with bowel cancer. These are our practical tips to help you support your loved one.
- Become familiar with their healthcare team
Getting to know the health care professionals who care for your loved one can be useful when you have questions or concerns. The first appointment at the hospital is likely to be with a colorectal surgeon and a Cancer Specialist Nurse (CNS). They're part of a bigger team of healthcare professionals that look after different areas of treatment and care. This is called a multi-disciplinary team (MDT).
We have more information about each healthcare professional on our website. We've also suggested some questions you might like to ask when meeting their healthcare team.
- Become familiar with their treatment
Learning more about the treatment your loved one is getting can help you to understand how it affects them, the side effects to expect, and how to help with managing them. We have information about different treatments on our website.
- Help with their medication
Managing medications can be overwhelming, especially if there are many. Helping your loved one to keep track of their medications can take extra stress off them. You could use a planner like this one, by Boots and Macmillan.
- Offer to drive to appointments
Offering to drive them to hospital appointments can help to reduce stress. Your company might also help support them on treatment days. You could contact local volunteer groups that help with hospital transport. You can find more information about support available in your area through your GP, local social services or the Carers Trust.
- Offer to help with household tasks
You could offer to help with household tasks like cleaning, gardening, laundry or grocery shopping.
- Share tasks as a group
If there is a group of people supporting your loved one, it can help to share out tasks between you. This can also help you, so that you’re not caring for the person affected by bowel cancer on your own. Carers UK have produced an app called Jointly to help with this. The app is free to download but there is a one off payment of £2.99 to access all features.
- Make meals they can freeze
Your loved one may experience extreme tiredness (called fatigue) and may not feel like cooking. You could save them time and energy by making larger amounts of food and freezing them in meal-size portions, that are easy to defrost and prepare.
For more information on eating with bowel cancer, see our Eating Well booklet.
- Invite their friends over for lunch or a chat
Some people with bowel cancer have a low appetite. They may also feel lonely at times. You can help make mealtimes more enjoyable for your loved one by visiting them for lunch and a chat. If you live with them, you could invite their friends, colleagues or neighbours over instead.
- Get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19
You can protect yourself and your loved one by getting vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19. These viruses can be dangerous for people who are being treated for bowel cancer. As a carer, you may be eligible to get vaccines for free. For more information see Carers UK.
Check the NHS website to see if you're eligible for a flu vaccine or a COVID-19 vaccine. We also have information about COVID-19 on our website.
- Attend appointments when you can
Hospital appointments can be overwhelming as there's often lots to take in. Going with your loved one to their appointment can be reassuring for them. You may be told important information about your loved one's condition and how to support them. You can take notes or record conversations with doctors or nurses, with their consent, to make sure you don't forget anything. You can also ask them any questions you might have. They can tell you about support available such as counselling, nutritionists and prehabilitation programmes.
See Macmillan's website for more tips on attending appointments as a carer.
If you're worried things aren't happening as they should
When your loved one is receiving treatment for bowel cancer you want to know that they're receiving the best care possible. The NHS has excellent treatment pathways for bowel cancer, but if you're concerned that your loved one isn't getting the help or care they need, there are some things you may find helpful to do.
Ask if you can attend their appointment with them.
Prepare a list of questions before you go to the appointment. These might include:
- Why is this the best treatment?
- How well does it usually work for most people?
- Are there any alternatives?
Your loved one should have the name and contact details of a Cancer Nurse Specialist (CNS) who will be able to talk through treatment options with you both. They should also be able to talk about how your loved one is feeling both physically and emotionally and what may help with any symptoms or side effects they're experiencing. If you're not sure who your loved one's CNS is, you can speak to their healthcare team.
Some people find it helpful to ask for a second opinion. Your loved one's treatment and care will have been discussed with specialists who have expert knowledge and experience. However, some people may want to ask for a second opinion about their treatment. Find out how to ask for a second opinion.
If you still have questions or concerns about the care of your loved one, you can find your local Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS). You can raise concerns on behalf of your loved one if you have their consent.
When a loved one is diagnosed with bowel cancer we know it can have a big impact on you and your life. It's important to look after your own health and wellbeing too. Find out about ways to help take care of yourself.
Maggie's provides free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their family and friends. Maggie's has centres at some NHS hospitals as well as an online centre.
Phone: 0300 123 1801
Macmillan provides support and information on cancer, money, benefits and work.
Phone: 0808 808 0000
Carers UK provide information and advice on caring, work and financial support for carers across the UK.
Phone: 0808 808 7777
The Carers Trust provide services and support to unpaid carers across the UK.
Phone: 0300 772 9600
Marie Curie provide information on living with a terminal illness, accessing health services, supporting someone at the end of life and coping when someone dies.
Phone: 0800 090 2309