How to support a family member with chronic illness

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Knowing how to support family member with chronic illness can be difficult. Here are five practical tips on how to help.

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How to support a family member with chronic illness

Hustling, running, paying bills, staying hydrated, laughing with friends, drinking too many mimosas at the occasional Sunday brunch. Life is happening. Things are good.

Then, BOOM. Cancer. Multiple Sclerosis. Lupus.


Your parent, your cousin. A family member you love is diagnosed, and whatever it is, it’s serious. Life halts, your perspective shifts. You feel horrible, scared, concerned. You want to support a family member with chronic illness, but you have zero idea what to do or say.

It’s understandable. No one has prepared you to help support a family member with chronic illness. But if there’s one rule you absolutely need to remember when someone entrusts you with the news of their chronic illness, it’s this:

Don’t be a dick.

Simple, right?

You’d think so, but in reality, a lot of well-meaning people get this so very wrong.

To be on the safe (i.e. non-dicky) side, check out the advice below. These snippets of wisdom come straight from the source and pull no punches. Read carefully, then pull it together and go be somebody’s rock.

How to support a family member with chronic illness


(How not to be an asshole a family member has a chronic illness)

1. Listen

So, the news is out – a person close to you in your family has just been diagnosed with a chronic illness. The first (and sometimes only) thing you can do is listen. Lorraine Harris, 62, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. “Those whom I appreciated most,” she said, “were those able to listen to all of my concerns, doubts, and choices while respecting my decisions without judgment.”


After all that listening, it’s your turn to talk, right? Hell to the naw. When asked what kind of Sarcoidosis-related support he desires from family and friends, Ron Walker, 41, states it bluntly. “Don’t mention shit about the disease and let me enjoy life.”

3. Don’t compare

Of course, while some people have no intention of starting a dialogue about their illness, others want to have a two-sided conversation. It’s best not to compare the person to anyone else you know or have heard about with the disease.

“I would advise that supporters take their cues from the person diagnosed and allow for fluctuations in behavior and feelings,” says Harris. This person is unique; pay attention to what they need, and do your best to give it, noting that their needs may change over time.

4. Have great health advice?!

Maybe keep that shit to yourself…Before you start talking about the caveman diet, veganism or pineapple juice cleanses, stop and think “Did anybody ask me for my opinion?” If so, great – forge ahead my friend! If not, refer to #2 on this list. “I never felt comfortable being overwhelmed with attention or advice,” says Harris. “I always felt grateful for the time and space to process the diagnosis, medical care, and recovery in my own way.”

The same is true in situations where a person chooses alternative methods of healing over conventional care. Spiritual Health Nutritionist and self-proclaimed “Cancer Kick-asser” Kenda Bell, 48, used a mind-body-spirit approach after her diagnosis in March of 2017. “I didn’t take the traditional medically advised route to healing; so some of my loved ones had concerns,” she says. She stresses that it’s important for family members to “respect [a person’s] choices.” It isn’t your body. It’s theirs.

5. Show up!

Chronic illness isn’t fun, cute, or sexy. It doesn’t make a great happy hour conversation, and it’s rarely Snapchat or Instagram worthy. Our “live your best life” culture can be hard to reconcile when someone you love is living through what could be some of their worst times yet. It can be extremely tempting to go ghost. Don’t.

“I never felt alone in my journey,” says Harris. “This gave me peace of mind and allowed me to move forward with confidence and strength.” Even if you don’t know exactly what to say or do, making yourself available can be a meaningful way to give support. Simply showing up, staying present, and providing quality companionship can go a long way.

If swiveling, tipping your hat, and metaphorically moonwalking out of someone’s life when they tell you they’re ill is the biggest dick move ever, then standing strong and being there makes you the exact opposite of that. No, not a vagina – a good friend.

Article by
Carmen R. H. Chandler

Carmen R. H. Chandler


Don't mention shit about my disease and let me enjoy life.