When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, you want to help – but it can be hard to know where to start. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to lending a hand, says Natalie Schnaitmann, L.C.S.W., director of operations for the Department of Supportive Care Medicine at City of Hope.
Here are 10 ideas for supporting your loved one through the ups and downs of cancer treatment.
1. Reach out. Unsure what to say or how to act toward your friend? That’s normal. Don’t let your awkwardness prevent you from reaching out. “Be courageous enough to admit you don’t know what to say,” Schnaitmann said. “Just putting forward your genuine caring and desire to help is the best anyone can ask for.”
2. Be real. Positive thinking is great, but people with cancer also need a safe place to express their dark thoughts. “So many patients never have an opportunity to speak realistically about their fears,” Schnaitmann said. Instead of making proclamations that everything will be OK, make it clear that you’re there to listen – no matter what your friend wants to discuss.
3. Help with meals. You’ve probably thought about dropping off a meal to a friend during treatment, and that’s a great way to help. You could also organize a drop-off schedule among multiple friends and family members. Or, give your friend a call on your way to the grocery store. “Say I’ll be by in 10 minutes to pick up your list. If they don’t have a list, pick up some basics, including easy-to-heat meals,” Schnaitmann suggested.
4. Pick up some housework. Drop a laundry basket on the porch with a note saying “Please fill this!” and return it later that day with the clothes clean and folded. If you can afford it, consider sending a cleaning service over to spruce up the house.
5. Grab your keys. It can be hard for patients to get around, especially if they can’t drive themselves. Offer to take them to and from treatment appointments, take their kids to soccer practice or pop into the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions.
6. Send cards. Repeat. Cards may be old-fashioned, but they are still an easy way to brighten someone’s day. Send a quick note to let your friend know you’re thinking of him – and keep sending them periodically as long as treatment is continuing. “Usually you get a lot of support at the beginning [of treatment], but then it often goes away,” Schnaitmann said.
7. Ask questions. Your friend’s needs will change day to day. Sometimes, she might want someone to talk to. Sometimes, she’ll need a fun distraction like watching a funny movie or going out to dinner. Other days she won’t be up for company at all. “Don’t be afraid to check in to say, ‘I’m here for you. Please tell me how I can most help you today,’” Schnaitmann said. Let her know the support is on her terms.
8. Send love. If your friend lives far away, a care package can show your love. Send a mix of fun and practical gifts like warm socks, a cozy blanket, magazines or crossword puzzle books, fancy hand lotions or tasty treats. You might also take the lead to ask other friends to contribute to the care package, Schnaitmann noted.
9. Keep trying. Sometimes, your friend won’t be up for social events. Don’t stop inviting them, even if they keep turning you down, Schnaitmann said. “Keep offering opportunities to go out and do things, while letting them know you respect their needs and they can always say no.”
10. Follow up. People with cancer often bury their feelings in order to get through treatment. “When treatment ends, it’s not uncommon that they’re suddenly flooded with emotions at a time when everyone expects them to be celebrating,” Schnaitmann said. Ask your loved one how he or she is really feeling, and let them know you’re there to listen. They’ll be glad to have you.