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A problem shared: How to help those around you live a more comfortable life after a cancer diagnosis

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Samantha Wong looks to Bupa for advice on how you can best help those around you live a more comfortable life after a cancer diagnosis.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are approximately 14 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer-related deaths each year – a figure expected to rise by around 70% by 2030.

People with cancer can feel extremely isolated, particularly when those around them don’t know how to cope with seeing them in pain. And if you have a friend or loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer, you may feel helpless. While everyone is individual and deals with cancer in their own way, there are many ways in which you can support them through this difficult time. This October, to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we focus on the best ways to help a friend or loved one who’s been diagnosed with cancer.

Be there to talk

Katerina Kadkova, oncology clinical lead nurse at Bupa, opens by saying: “Sometimes we don’t know how to talk or act when a loved one is unwell, potentially creating awkward situations. Maybe we assume that they won’t want to talk about their diagnosis, but in fact, this could be exactly what they need. Each person is different – talk to them. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about cancer.”

Joy Juliano-Holmes, a DB resident of eight years, who was diagnosed with Stage 2A breast cancer in September 2016, speaks of the disease as a journey. “There are lessons to be learnt, and relationships to be appreciated,” she says. Joy, a flight attendant for Cathay Pacific, underwent a lumpectomy upon diagnosis; her chemotherapy and radiation treatments finished in April this year.

“The most important tool that my family had is patience,” says Joy. “Physically, I was OK but very much challenged by my emotions. I was at my worst, I think. I would snap over little things and I mean little things. My husband showed tremendous support by asking that I spare everyone else and just take it out on him. He also helped me explain what was going on to our kids.”

When all is said and done, a loved one with cancer needs to know you are there for them. “They will find great comfort in knowing you are there to listen to them when they need you,” Katrina says. “You can also talk about future plans, giving them something to look forward to and helping them focus on things that bring them joy.”

Provide proactive support

One of the most frustrating things about cancer is that it wears people down and lessens their ability to do things they once found easy or enjoyable. To ease this burden, simply offer your help – with the housework, grocery shopping or whatever needs doing.

Joy is quick to acknowledge the support she gained from her helpers – both practical and spiritual. “My helpers were a great help as they did what was expected of them – like meal preparation and making sure our flat was germ- and bacteria-free – but there was a lot more to it than that,” she says. “They constantly included me in their prayers and they involved others from our church in Tung Chung too. They became my prayer warriors here in Hong Kong.”

Another hands-on way to show loved ones that you’re there for them is to go with them to medical appointments. “It can be hard to pick up everything the doctor is saying, and medical appointments and treatment can be particularly stressful after cancer diagnosis,” says Katrina. “Having a friend or family member’s support at these times can be a great help.”

Joy’s mother, who came over from the US on learning of her daughter’s diagnosis, was able to give Joy exactly this type of support. “My mum accompanied me to doctor’s visits, laboratory works and chemo sessions,” Joy says. “She was my constant companion.

“My siblings from the US and the Philippines gave me a surprise visit and stayed for my last round of chemo,” Joy adds. “That was pure joy for me!”

Establishing a relationship with your loved one’s doctors and nurses, will also make it easier for you to find out about support groups and programmes available locally. “Meeting other people with cancer – and being inspired by those who have beaten the disease – can be extremely valuable to people undergoing treatment,” says Katrina.

Place a focus on diet

Food can be a complex issue for those living with and beyond cancer as treatment can cause nausea, reduce appetite and affect the taste buds. People receiving treatment are often unsure what the best diet is for them, and their friends and family are hesitant about what they can do to help.

“A healthy, balanced diet can help reduce the risk of becoming unwell again and helps retain fitness for treatment,” opens Bupa health coach/ dietician Rachael Eden. “It can, however, be very difficult to maintain the right diet, especially when it feels like food has lost all of the enjoyment.”

Staying hydrated and maintaining muscle tissue with enough fluids, calories and nutrients can have a number of benefits. It can reduce treatment delays, boost the immune system and help minimise debilitating side effects, such as fatigue.

Explaining that she was fortunate in experiencing few side effects during chemotherapy, particularly in relation to her diet, Joy says: “My doctor’s main concern was for me not to lose weight so I’d be strong enough to fight the side effects of chemo. It did affect my appetite in the very beginning but after the first week or so my appetite was really good. I can compare it to when I was pregnant! My oncologist said I could eat anything other than raw food or fruit still in its skin.”

Cancer treatment makes eating big meals difficult for many, so Rachael suggests you prepare smaller meals packed with food high in calories. “Soup can be an easy meal, and you can boost energy intake by including meats, such as bacon or chicken; add some plain noodles or croutons and have cheese on toast as a side. Nutrient- dense foods, such as avocado and   some seeds, grains or nuts, help keep strength up.”

Make mealtimes enjoyable

Some people undergoing cancer treatment find that foods can taste too strong or metallic, something Joy experienced in the first few weeks of treatment. This is because the spread of chemotherapy drugs during treatment can damage taste receptors and cause taste changes.

“Red meats are more prone to tasting metallic, so stick to serving white meat,” Rachael says. “Try cooking the meat in sweet tasting condiments, like sweet-and-sour sauce or even vinegar. Use plastic rather than metallic cutlery, and note that cold or chilled foods tend to taste better than foods which are warm or hot.”

Nausea is another common issue for people undergoing cancer treatment, and a practical solution is to use an extractor fan when cooking to help eliminate aromas.

Plain tasting foods, like mashed potatoes and noodles, tend to be easiest to stomach, and you can try adding some vegetables or white meat for a more substantial meal. When preparing mashed potatoes, Rachael suggests you use whole milk boosted with milk powder to increase the calorie intake. “Fizzy drinks can also help with the nausea and are high in sugar content, which can temporarily boost energy levels.

“Although it’s tough, it’s important to help loved ones maintain a regular eating pattern, even if it’s just eating a handful of crisps or nuts during the day,” Rachael concludes. “Ask them what they feel able to eat and try to make mealtimes as enjoyable as possible. After all, food is meant to be a basic pleasure for all of us.”


Support Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Pink is the colour of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the annual global campaign that takes place every October to raise awareness of breast cancer. Hong Kong Cancer Fund (HKCF) leads the way locally, encouraging everyone to take part in its Pink Revolution.

On Dress Pink Day (October 27) organisations, groups and individuals are invited to dress, party and play in pink! All donations raised go towards HKCF’s breast cancer care services that help patients and families live with, through and beyond breast cancer. For as little as HK$120, participants can sponsor a Pink Recovery Pack, which is sent to the bedsides of breast cancer patients who have just undergone surgery.

Throughout October, you are also invited to Shop for Pink. Almost 30 well-known retailers, including Calvin Klein, Pandora, and Pizza Express, are supporting Pink Revolution with exclusive offers. Part of the sales proceeds go towards HKCF’s free breast cancer services.

To get involved in either Dress Pink Day or Shop for Pink, visit pink.cancer-fund.org.

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