How to Best Support Someone With Cancer
When someone you know is diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to want to help in any and every way you can. It’s also natural to not know exactly what to do. When this happens, it can be tempting to just offer something broad: “I’ll do anything you need, just ask.” That’s a good instinct, but it’s also vague—often, a person with cancer doesn’t always know what they need, or they may feel uncomfortable asking for help. Relationship dynamics also come into play—if you’re coworkers, for example, you may not have the type of close relationship that warrants showing up at home or the hospital.
Sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do is offer a specific kind of help—something that’s in your wheelhouse and in line with the relationship you have. Instead of saying “I’ll do anything,” try these helpful offers instead:
Be specific with the kind of help you can offer.
Try: “I make a mean lasagna. Can I bring one over this weekend for you and the kids?”
Offer specific, practical things you can do. If you enjoy cooking, for example, ask what your friend feels like eating (chemo can greatly affect a person’s food preferences) or for their family’s favorite meal. If you’re not the culinary type, purchase a gift card for food delivery instead, or offer something else you excel at: care for your friend’s lawn or garden, take their dogs for a long walk each evening, or babysit during appointments or treatments.
Don’t hover or smother.
Try: “Have you designated a point person for updates?”
It’s likely that a lot of people are reaching out to your friend or family member with cancer, which can be both wonderful and exhausting. Ask if there is a central location for updates, like a private Facebook group. If there isn’t one, offer to set one up. This can be a great way to organize a list of tasks for friends, neighbors, and co-workers who want to provide support.
Provide practical support for treatment-related tasks.
Try: “You mentioned that you’ve been having trouble remembering your medication. I saw this app that has built-in reminders, if you’d like me to install that on your phone.”
Your first instinct may be to take care of non-cancer tasks for your friend, like picking up groceries or mowing the yard, so that they can focus on their treatment. If you’re not a medical professional, you might think that you can’t be very helpful on that end. But in reality, you can support your friend in their treatment by offering to check in after chemo appointments, texting reminders to take medication, or installing our app on their phone and teaching them how to use features like the daily symptom tracker or personalized planner and to-do lists.
Offer – don’t assume.
Try: “We know you have some travel for treatment coming up, and everyone at work wants to donate their frequent flyer miles. Would that be helpful for you?”
Planning a grand gesture or big surprise may make you feel excited and helpful, but it could backfire. Before you organize something major, like a meal train or a donation campaign, check in with the recipient. Sometimes, what you think is a great idea turns out to be not-so-practical – the airline miles you collect don’t offer direct flights to the city where treatment is taking place, or there may already be a meal train in place you don’t know about. There’s also the matter of pride. Cancer treatment can upend a person’s autonomy, and what you may think is a helpful gesture may be interpreted as pity. If you offer help and it’s turned down, don’t take it personally.
Don’t forget caregivers need help, too.
“Hey, Stefan. I know you’ve been taking care of Rosalie during her treatment. How are you doing?”
Don’t forget to run errands for the caregiver, which can be just as helpful as an errand for your friend. Ditto for treats—if you’re bringing over a gift for the person with cancer, bring a little something for the caregiver, too. It can be a real day-maker.
Be the face of consistency during an inconsistent time.
Try: “I’ll shoot you a text before I come over on Thursday.”
The most helpful things you can offer someone with cancer: consistency and flexibility. If you take on a task, follow through. Whether it’s something as small as pulling weeds in the garden or as big as driving your friend to a chemo appointment, your friend (and their caregiver) needs the peace of mind that comes with having a reliable support network. Even if others are helping out and could likely fill in for you, cancelling your plans, showing up late, or trying to coordinate a replacement can be an added stress during an already stressful time.
With that said, keep in mind that the only predictable thing about having cancer is unpredictability – sometimes, appointments run late or side effects are more intense than expected. Be flexible if and when plans change. If your co-worker is too tired for an in-person visit or video call for updates on what’s happening at work, offer to write up a summary in an email instead. If no one answers the door when you drop off a batch of homemade brownies, put the pan on the back porch and text your friend about the surprise that’s waiting when they get home from their appointment.
Remember that help comes in many different forms.
Try: “I’ve been binge-watching Ted Lasso. Have you seen it yet?”
When most people think of helping someone with cancer, they think of tasks and to-do lists. But don’t forget the intangibles can be just as helpful. Your friendship can provide a touchstone of normalcy during a very abnormal time. Tag them in a cute or funny meme on social media, use FaceTime to keep your friend company during a chemo treatment, or just hang out while your friend sleeps or watches TV while recovering from surgery.
There are many ways to help a friend, colleague, or loved one with cancer. This help can take many forms, from big, grand gestures to small, important ones. Offer what you are able, and follow through. What matters most is not what you do, but that you care enough to do it.
The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at [email protected].