How You Can Comfort a Loved One with Cancer

Each of us knows someone whose life has been touched by cancer. It may be a parent, a sibling or other relative, a spouse, partner or friend. No matter who it is, we share the common experience of a natural desire to help and bring comfort, to alleviate suffering in that person we care about.

Many of us, however, don’t quite know what we can do to help. A diagnosis of cancer can be scary and may seem complicated, perhaps overwhelming. Many family members or friends feel a sense of helplessness, which can be a stress in itself.

Now there is evidence that each of us has in our own hands the ability to reduce suffering in a loved one with cancer. A new study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute evaluated an instructional DVD program that teaches family members and friends how to use simple forms of touch and massage to reduce symptoms and side effects of treatment. What is remarkable about this study is that it shows that regular people with no formal training can achieve some of the same benefits that patients receive from professional oncology massage therapists.

Caregivers using the techniques achieved significant reductions in stress/anxiety, pain, fatigue, depression, nausea, and an assortment of miscellaneous symptoms.

What can you do to bring these benefits to a loved one with cancer?

Permission. First ask if they would like to receive some touch to help them relax. You don’t want to give unwelcome touch just because they don’t want to offend you! You can offer one of the simple techniques listed below. Don’t impose, however. If they don’t want touch right now, let them know this is fine, and they could let you know later.

Presence. The very first requirement for using touch in a comforting way is simple presence. This means being in a state of calm and peace yourself, so you can be fully present and attentive to the recipient. Take a few moments to “center” yourself, perhaps through a simple prayer, meditation on your breath, or anything that helps you calm your mind to be fully present for this person.

Attitude. Have an attitude of loving kindness. Your state of mind and attitude are transmitted through your hands, so your recipient will sense this through your touch.

Communication. Talk with the recipient about what feels good, what they like and don’t like, and how much pressure to use or not use. Make sure they are not just deferring to you because they appreciate the attention—insist on honest feedback about what kind of touch is best.

Positioning. Pay attention to positioning for both yourself and the recipient. If either of you is in an awkward or uncomfortable position (like standing and leaning or reaching awkwardly), both of you will be uncomfortable. Touch can be effective when sitting or lying down. For example, a recipient can sit at the kitchen table with cushions or pillows in front to lean forward on over the table. This makes it easy to reach their back and shoulders, neck or head. For lying down, either a sofa or bed can be comfortable places to use touch.

Simple techniques for comfort and relaxation. You don’t have to be a massage therapist to provide real comfort! The main benefits are comfort and relaxation, and those can be achieved with the simplest forms of contact. Hand and foot massage can relax the whole body. Light and slow massage of the back, neck, shoulders, head and face can also produce great relaxation. Light and gentle touch are enough, there is no need for strong pressure or fancy skills.

Safety precautions. Avoid areas of the body with medical devices (e.g., chemo ports), tumors, recent surgeries, or radiation. Avoid areas at risk of lymphedema, such as an arm if lymph nodes have been removed. Avoid the legs, since some drugs cause a risk of clotting in the legs. Remember, the only goal is comfort and relaxation, and just the simplest forms of contact can achieve this.

Many people are concerned about the use of touch in cancer possibly causing complications. When caregivers are concerned about this, patients may receive little or no touch when they could benefit from it the most. The reality is that there is no evidence of touch or massage spreading cancer or making it worse. There is a safe way to provide comfort through touch for anyone, no matter what their medical condition.

You have in your heart and hands the ability to reduce suffering in a loved one with cancer. Give them the gift of touch, and both of you will be rewarded. To see video trailers of the DVD program used in the study, visit The program and trailers are available in English, Spanish, and Chinese language versions.