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Helping a Loved One with Cancer Long Distance

In June 2008, when Sally Koslow heard doctors suspected her 25-year-old son Scott had cancer, she did what any parent would---she dropped everything to be with him. In her case, that meant flying 3,000 miles from New York City, where she lives, to Los Angeles, where her son resides. 

Scott was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), a cancer of the lymphatic system. Sally and her husband stayed in California to support Scott through the initial shock and doctors' visits, and made additional trips to accompany him for treatments. But once the crisis abated and Scott went into remission, they all resumed---as best they could---their daily lives. Sally, a novelist, returned to New York and her writing, and her son, who works in the entertainment industry, became immersed in his West Coast life.

But the angst hasn't ended. It is devastating enough to have a child with cancer, Sally says; living far apart only adds to the challenge of knowing how best to support him.

Distance Doesn't Have to Mean "Distant"

When a loved one develops cancer, you are bound to feel sad, helpless, and worried---particularly if you live far away. But the miles needn't prevent you from providing valuable support and assistance. Consider these suggestions for long-distance care-giving:

  • Stay in touch. Don't underestimate the emotional support that comes from regular phone calls or emails. Your attention and concern can bring comfort and boost your loved one's spirits, while frequent chats will keep you feeling involved and informed.
  • Be respectful of your loved one's wishes. Luanne Chynoweth, assistant director of the Social Work Services Department at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, says it's important to practice "attentive listening"---to tune in to what your loved one is saying. Some people with cancer may fear being a burden and thus may be reluctant to request help, while others simply may prefer to handle certain things themselves. Make offers and suggestions gently and see how they are received before proceeding. Don't push if your loved one doesn't always feel like talking or asks you to postpone a visit.
  • Find out what's needed. Talk with your loved one or the primary caregiver about the medical, financial, and home situation and assess current and future needs. Work together on problem-solving and see whether there is a particular role you can play. Since you can't prepare food and bring it over, perhaps arrange to have meals delivered from a local restaurant. You also may be able to order groceries online or over the telephone from a local supermarket that delivers.
  • Volunteer to be the "go to" or point person for others. Communicating can take a lot of energy for people with cancer. Offering to oversee phone calls, emails, a care page, or blog to update friends and relatives on the ill person's progress may alleviate some anxiety and doesn't require living nearby, Chynoweth says.
  • Offer to do research. Cancer is overwhelming and many individuals, especially older people, may not have the skills or desire to gather the information necessary to understand the disease and make informed decisions. Volunteer to research oncologists, facilities, treatments, clinical trials, and available support services. Use trustworthy Internet resources such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. If your loved one asks you to contact medical providers, be sure you have written consent. Privacy laws prohibit health professionals from speaking to relatives—even parents or adult children---without the patient's permission.
  • Take time off to visit. Use vacation time or a holiday weekend and visit with the ill person. Spend the time doing pleasurable things together. Don't sweep in and try to micro-manage the household or medical care, Chynoweth advises. Take on some practical chores, or those that your loved one would rather not do, and use the time to evaluate overall needs.
  • Make thoughtful gestures. Send little gifts that you think your loved one will enjoy, such as music CDs or music download gift cards, entertaining novels, or magazine subscriptions (books, magazines, and music all can be helpful distractions during lengthy chemotherapy sessions). Sending handwritten notes or inspirational messages conveying prayers and healing thoughts can also be uplifting to people with cancer, Chynoweth notes.
  • Offer financial assistance. Cancer can strain family finances, especially if the ill person must take time off from work. Many people are too proud or embarrassed to ask for monetary help, but if you suspect it's needed and feel comfortable offering, broach the subject politely. For example, since you live too far to babysit or drive to medical visits, suggest paying for child care or transportation costs.
  • Don't forget the caregiver. If your loved one has a caregiver, during phone calls and visits make an attempt to reach out to that person, who also likely feels stressed. Ask how that person is coping and offer emotional and practical support, Chynoweth says. If, for instance, your mother is caring for your ill father, you may want to provide some respite time during a visit---arrange for some pampering for the caregiver, perhaps a special dinner out at a restaurant or an afternoon at a spa. If you can't visit, you might arrange some in-home assistance to lessen the burden or help them find a support group for caregivers.

Whatever support you give, experts advise taking cues from your loved one, whether you live far away or around the corner.

And that's what Sally Koslow has done. She speaks and emails with her son, now 27, several times a week, and is ready to fly west if needed. Most importantly, she's learned to step back and let Scott be "in charge" of his illness.