When you first learn of a friend or family member’s diagnosis, it’s natural to wonder how to help someone with cancer. As we learned when my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer in July 2012, friends and family members truly do want to help but sometimes don’t know where to start.
Dealing with cancer is a lonely battle, and one that doesn’t just affect the person who has it; cancer affects entire families. In the two years since we began our cancer journey, we’ve met many families traveling this same terrifying path. We’ve prayed with them, anxiously waited through long surgeries with them, and exchanged stories about our daily lives and what’s become the “new normal” for us all.
Almost without exception, the people I’ve spoken have said they wish they had more meaningful help from others, not just vague offers or invitations to “let me know if there’s anything I can do.” See, when your days are full of taking care of someone else and anticipating what kind of assistance or comfort they need, it’s very difficult to find the time or energy to think of specific forms of assistance or comfort you need.
So not long ago, I told some of the people in my online caregiver’s support group that I was putting together a blog entry about How to Help Someone with Cancer and I asked for their suggestions. I mentioned this to Facebook friends who have had or are dealing with cancer or caregiving, too. What follows are the most common suggestions from cancer patients and their families about the kind of help they need most from others, along with the things they wish people knew to avoid.
Things to Say to Someone with Cancer
I’m here for you if you need to talk. Many times, the person with cancer has things they’re not ready to share with their spouse or kids. Talking with non-family members can help them work through their feelings and prepare for frightening, but vital, conversations they’ll need to have.
What treatments do you have planned? Talking about future procedures and medications can help reduce anxiety by making it more matter-of-fact. But be sensitive: if they change the topic, let it go.
I’m praying for you (or thinking of you). Even cancer patients who aren’t religious draw hope and comfort from knowing others have them in mind.
I don’t even know what to say. It’s perfectly fine if you’re overwhelmed by the news; they certainly were, too. It’s better acknowledging your loss for words than forcing cheerfulness or, worse, avoiding the person altogether because you feel awkward.
Things NOT to Say to Someone with Cancer
Don’t tell them to stop worrying or that they’ll be fine. They can’t help but worry, and being told not to dismisses their very valid feelings.
Don’t tell them how strong or brave they’re being. This often leaves the person feeling pressured to continue putting on a brave face, and then they don’t feel comfortable talking about their bad days or feelings of hopelessness.
Don’t ask how long they have left to live. From the moment they hear the news, every ounce of a cancer patient’s energy is focused on proving the doctor wrong. Don’t make them dwell on what the statistics say. No one knows the future.
Don’t share stories about someone else’s cancer. You may think you’re being supportive, but the person facing a cancer diagnosis needs to focus on their fight, not find themselves suddenly needing to comfort you.
Don’t offer unsolicited advice or research. You’d be amazed at how quickly cancer patients and their caregivers become educated on the various treatments available. They don’t have the energy to bring you up-to-speed on what they’ve learned, and chances are your feelings will just get hurt when they dismiss your idea that involves an altogether different form of cancer or is potentially harmful.
Don’t say “call me if you need anything.” For many people, it’s embarrassing to ask for help of any kind. For others, there’s a genuine fear they’ll reach out to ask for something and get turned down.
How to Help Someone with Cancer
Set a reminder to call every week. The longer a cancer battle goes on, the more isolated cancer patients and their families tend to feel. This is particularly true if the person with cancer has to stop working and suddenly loses contact with coworkers and friends.
Make flexible plans for getting together. How a patient feels can change in a matter of moments when they’re on chemo or getting radiation treatment. Concert tickets or dinner reservations become a burden, rather than an enjoyable experience, when they find themselves nauseous or physically exhausted just when they’re expected to go somewhere and have fun.
Respect their compromised immune systems. Cancer ravages a body to begin with, then radiation and chemotherapy continue that work. People with cancer can’t fend off colds, viruses and infections the way a healthy person can. Don’t visit if you or a family member has recently been sick, and don’t expect to take a person with cancer out to crowded places (or even restaurants) if their immune system is struggling. Also, never visit a person with cancer shortly after receiving a live vaccine; they might catch what you were just immunized against.
Ask permission before visiting or planning something, and don’t take it personally if it’s not a good time. Often, the family is as worn out as the person with cancer and lacks the energy to entertain guests. Sure, you might not expect to be entertained, but that doesn’t mean the spouse or kids feel like they can ignore you. Ask before coming over, and if that day isn’t a good time be sure to try again.
Don’t let cancer change your friendship. It’s perfectly okay to talk about your day, to crack jokes, to talk about your future plans. These things help everyone remember there is life outside of cancer.
Drop off a meal you’ve made, preferably one they can freeze. It’s a good idea to ask first about taste changes and dietary restrictions. Chemo can make formerly beloved foods taste vile, while other things might trigger nausea. Also, some people with cancer eliminate all forms of artificial flavorings and -colors, preservatives, sugar, flour and other refined carbs. Meals they can freeze and cook on busy days are enormously helpful, but put it in a disposable container so they don’t have to worry about returning your dish.
Give them gift cards for gas or groceries. The financial toll of cancer is staggering, even for those with good health insurance. Gift cards for the stores where they shop or local gas stations can help a family while giving them the freedom to decide when to use them.
Or just buy a bag of groceries. Getting to the store is often a tactical nightmare for those with cancer and those who live with them. Most cancer patients can tolerate fresh fruits, bland proteins like chicken and eggs, whole grains, and dried beans. Things like toilet paper, moist bathroom wipes and dish soap are always useful, too. For those who are experiencing particular sensitivities due to chemo, consider asking their caregiver for a list of specific items and brands they’re okay with.
Check in through emails or text messages between calls. A kind word now and then is appreciated. Add a “no need to respond” and you really will have brightened their day.
Do their yard work. Mow the lawn, rake the leaves, shovel snowy driveways and sidewalks — it’s difficult to do these things when you’re exhausted from fighting cancer or caring for someone who is. Hiring someone to do it is often impossible when medical bills have drained your finances. Bonus: most of these things don’t even require a phone call ahead of time.
Help with household chores. This one is tricky since the caregiver may feel embarrassed for letting chores go while caring for their loved one. If the person is willing to accept your help, schedule a time when you can show up to do laundry, vacuuming, or mopping; if you’re good at fixing things, offer to perform any needed repairs. If the person seems reluctant and you can afford it, consider hiring a housecleaning service or repairman to come by one afternoon instead. Having a stranger perform such tasks may be less embarrassing for the family than having a friend see how horrifying bathrooms can become when someone is on chemo.
Walk the dog. While most people with cancer find their pets comforting, their physical exhaustion may keep them from enjoying long walks and play times with their pet. Taking Fido for a walk not only eases that guilt but helps wear the critter out he doesn’t get destructive.
Offer rides to and from treatment. Many times the caregiver does the driving to and from chemo or radiation appointments, sometimes on a daily basis. Offering transportation now and then is a great chance for you to spend time with the person who has cancer, plus it gives the caregiver a much-needed break.
Remember the children. Kids need a break from the emotional reality of dealing with their parent’s cancer, and the adults could often use a break from the kids, too. If you know the family’s children well, offer to take them to a movie, out for pizza or to miniature golf. Watching the kids during surgeries or medical treatments is always appreciated, too. If you don’t know the kids, see “Send Surprises” below.
Send surprises. Funny greeting cards are a great way to let someone know you’re thinking of them. Gift balloons always brighten someone’s day. Silk, not fresh, flowers and plants are wonderful gifts that don’t pose a risk of infection for those with severe immune system issues. So is a book of crossword puzzles, a bestseller (big print is best since chemo can affect vision), a funny DVD, or even a video or board game.
Give hats and scarves to those dealing with hair loss. Balding is a side-effect of radiation and many forms of chemo, and it’s not just a cosmetic one. Cancer patients tend to burn more easily than others, making skin cancer a common problem down the road. Hats and scarves also help people with cancer stay warm, something their bodies may struggle with even on sultry days. Be sure the hat or scarf is made from washable, extremely soft material since cancer skin is sensitive.
Help them make memories. Many cancer patients start writing their “Bucket List” as soon as they receive their diagnosis. Although it may seem awkward to bring it up yourself, if your friend says she or he has a Bucket List, find out what’s on it and see if you can make any of those things happen.
Help them celebrate. Holidays are very difficult for people with cancer and for their families, and yet it’s so important that they share happy times together. Arrange a birthday cake for the person with cancer or even for their family members. Set up a time to come help put up (and take down) holiday decorations since they may not have the energy to do so. If their immune system is health enough, consider taking the cancer patient shopping for gifts to give to family members, or offer to do the shopping for those who can’t be in crowded stores.
Care for the caregiver. Many times the spouse of the person with cancer is so busy scheduling appointments, preparing meals, cleaning and taking care of the children that he or she doesn’t have down time, much less time to go run personal errands. Offering to take the caregiver out for a meal or coffee isn’t always the best solution; in some cases, they simply cannot leave the person with cancer home unattended for any length of time. Set up a time to spend with the cancer patient so the caregiver can get out of the house or even just nap.
Don’t dismiss the caregiver. This came up in EVERY conversation I had with someone married to a person with cancer. Hearing from friends and family members about how courageous and brave the person with cancer is makes caregivers wonder if anyone recognizes their role and how much it’s costing them emotionally and physically. Having cancer doesn’t turn a person into a saint, but being thrust into the role of providing 24/7/365 care for someone who has it can.
Don’t tell the caregiver to “make” time for him or herself. There are only twenty-four hours in a day. Doctor appointments, treatment appointments, cooking, chauffeuring, dealing with insurance companies, paying bills, caring for children, doing housework and doling out medications can take up almost every waking hour. A person married to someone with cancer is, for all intents and purposes, single parenting. To tell someone that busy to “make” time for things like long showers, spending a day at the mall, getting their hair or nails done, meeting with friends, etc., just reminds them of how small a claim they have to their own time anymore. You can help them find time by using any of the suggestions about how to help someone with cancer.
When it’s all over…
Don’t disappear once they win the battle. Few people are happier than cancer patients hearing that they’re in remission, but that joy can be short-lived if their friends disappear once they hear the good news. Give them some time to rest and recover, then go back to the friendship you had.
And don’t forget the family if they’ve lost. Someone who loses their spouse to cancer doesn’t just lose their loved one; often, they lose their support system just when they need it the most. Children, meanwhile, have lost a parent they thought would be there through all of the milestones ahead. Rather than withdrawing, continue to do for the family what you’d done for the patient as they work through the various stages of grief. Having a strong support network following such the emotionally devastating, often prolonged trauma of watching your spouse or parent die from cancer can make the difference between the family healing or succumbing to deep, devastating depression.
Remember, like caregivers, you’re only one person. Don’t think anyone is expecting you do to everything for them or even to make it all better. There will be times when, despite your best intentions, you simply cannot help and it’s perfectly okay to say so. But when you do want to help and you’ve got the time and energy, these ideas about how to help people with cancer are a great place to start.
What other suggestions do you have for how to help people with cancer? Share in the comments!
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