When you’re feeling fine it’s hard to ask for help. When you have cancer it’s even harder. It’s a struggle to maintain a normal life while cancer is changing everything about it.
Sometimes cancer is so overwhelming it’s hard to think about what you need help with. On the bad days, you want to be alone. On other days having cancer feels so lonely, you want to be surrounded by friends.
As a cancer patient I see help as kindness and love. It’s something we all want and need, even when we don’t or can’t ask. Help comes in so many forms and sometimes from out of the blue. It gets you through the worst times with tears of joy and much needed silver linings.
I’ve received so much kindness and love that I want to pay it forward and help others. Thank you to everyone— you’ve given me great ideas!
Here’s some ways you can help someone with cancer:
1. Check in with a quick message
An occasional "How's it going?" or a "Thinking of you" text message gives instant warm fuzzies to a patient. On days when they feel like they've been hit by a truck, texting makes it a lot easier to vent without leaving the bed.
Just so you know: Expect less ‘instant’ with the messaging because a cancer patient can be functioning in slow-motion.
2. Send a card
A card can give you the words and sentiment when it’s hard to know what to say. Whether you choose a sappy or funny card, add your own words or just sign your name, it's a heartwarming way to show your support. Who doesn’t love to receive something delightful in the mail?
Keep them coming: Cancer treatment takes a long time so surprise them with a card every now and then.
3. Email or write a letter
Writing more than 140 characters might be considered a bit old school but your stories, no matter the topic, are an escape from the world of cancer. Write about what you did this week. Brag about your kids or pets. Talk about a recent trip. Share a funny moment from your childhood. If you’re feeling really old school, try a handwritten letter on stationery!
No reply necessary: Let them know they can get in touch when they have the energy.
4. Buy gift cards
Cancer is full of unexpected needs which makes gift cards a flexible way to help a patient when they need it. You can't go wrong with Whole Foods, Amazon, or a favorite grocery or drug store.
Gift cards are also an enjoyable treat. It’s nice to look forward to a break from everything cancer with a trip to a favorite restaurant or theater.
Go local: Be sure the card can be used nearby for their convenience.
5. Give flowers
Giving beautiful flowers to brighten up a patient’s surroundings is a sure way to make them smile.
Heads up: Chemo can make a patient's nose sensitive to strong smells so watch out for extremely fragrant blooms.
6. Give a gift of comfort or joy
There's a lot of downtime with cancer and we're not talking the fun kind. Help them rest with a warm blanket, comfy slippers or soothing bath salts. Let them escape with a book, magazines, tv series or movie. Stimulate their brains with puzzle books, games or activities they can play solo. Or surprise them with something silly!
Looking for a group gift idea? A massage or acupuncture visit is like heaven for a body that’s been beaten up by cancer treatments. Find someone with oncology training because they’ll best understand how to work with the patient’s body.
Keep it light: Since cancer is filled with seriousness, avoid gifts that might make them reach for a kleenex box.
7. Have some 1:1 time
Seeing friends and family can be a huge morale booster but it's not always easy. Getting together with a cancer patient requires patience and flexibility because their condition can be up and down like a rollercoaster.
Give an open-ended invitation to let them know you’d like to see them but on their terms. For example: “If you’re feeling well, I’d like to see you this weekend. If not this weekend, just let me know when.” Don't be surprised if it takes a while to plan or they need to cancel at the last minute.
A short home visit is a good option when a patient is feeling so-so but wants company. But if a patient is feeling well enough, stay a little longer or meet somewhere for a change of scenery. Go to a movie, take a walk in the park, pamper them at the spa or chat over lunch.
Cancer can be isolating at times so whatever time you have together, be a good listener if they want to talk. If they have chemo brain, long conversations might be difficult and tiring.
Beware: It can be hard for a patient to end a visit when they're not feeling well but enjoying time with you. If you see they're slowing down, it's time for goodbyes. There's always next time!
8. Bring food
Delivering food is a comforting time saver. A cancer patient's diet has unique needs based on their treatment and side effects. Before you start cooking, check with the patient or caregiver for diet restrictions and food preferences. They may suggest meals or recipes.
It's possible a patient is not eating the same food as their family. No worries. It’s just as helpful to feed the family if the patient is dealing with nausea or changing taste buds.
It’s easiest to receive one-meal dishes that can be refrigerated or frozen. To ensure the patient isn’t flooded with food, check on the best times for food deliveries.
Make it easy: If you're not a chef, give a basket of fresh fruit, veggies or healthy snacks!
9. Be a caregiver or give one a break
A cancer patient will need someone at their side. Be an escort to doctor appointments or infusions. Be bedside on the days after chemo or surgery. Or pick up prescriptions or groceries.
If the patient has a primary caregiver, give them a break. Encourage them to recharge by doing something relaxing and enjoyable for themselves rather than doing more on their to-do list. Even better, take the caregiver out for some fun if the patient is doing well enough to be alone.
Have patience: It can be emotionally difficult to take a break when caring for a sick loved one. Suggest some possible days to fill in so a caregiver can plan ahead.
10. Help with family and home
It’s very challenging to take care of a family and home when someone in it has cancer. Helping with anything around the house can be a big relief.
Parents will appreciate ways to keep life normal for their kids. Offer to babysit or treat the kids to a special afternoon activity. Drive them to practices and classes. Set up playdates or sleepovers with friends. If there’s furry kids, offer to help with dog walking or other pet care needs.
It's important to keep a patient's surroundings clean and stress-free. Give them an open-ended offer to help around the house. For example: “May I come over early next week to help with a few household chores? Please give me a couple tasks and any special instructions. If not next week, just let me know when.”
This offer helps a patient plan tasks that will not impact their health condition. It’s likely they will need help with chores that require more time and energy than they can give. If the patient is having a rough time, get in and out and save the socializing for another time.
Understand: It can be a bit uncomfortable to have friends or family help with housecleaning chores. It’s not like you want people to see your mess, let alone clean it.
Of course a big hug is always loved too!