How can I help my friend who's been diagnosed with cancer?

By: mikeedesignCC BY 2.0
This isn't a fun topic, but it is one that unfortunately probably affects a lot of people….

Can we have a conversation about how to practically help a friend with a diagnosis of cancer (or other serious disease)? Just this week a very close old friend of mine (with 2 little kids) found out she has ovarian cancer, and it is spreading already. This is scary, scary stuff. Not much else is known right now. But I can't be the only person with a friend facing this.

Reading online it seems the best thing you can do is to help them *practically* and make concrete plans, not say "let me know if I can do anything" (no matter how sincerely you mean that.) Offbeat Homies always have great ideas, so I thought we could open it up.

In my personal case, the friend lives a couple hours away, but we could discuss ideas for friends near and far. I have already sent a GC for a restaurant that delivers in their town that will more than cover dinner for one night when they can't face cooking. Our larger group of friends is collecting donations to pay for once a week house cleaning for a month.

What else can I/we do to help our friends facing The Big (fucking) C?
– Andrea

  1. I had a traumatic accident 8 years ago (t-boned by a dump truck and even that couldn't take me out!). I spent a few months in hospital doing rehab for a traumatic brain injury and a lot of physical trauma.

    My parents, to this day, still talk about the friends and neighbours that came forward to help. Prepared meals is a big one. Something like lasagna or other casseroles that can go in the freezer is a great help. In my case, my family was traveling back and forth to the hospital constantly, so having a healthy homemade meal available was a true blessing for them.

    Gift cards for places where they can grab lunch or coffee is a really good idea. If they wind up spending a lot if time traveling back and forth to the hospital, and in the hospital, the coffee helps! 😉

    Finally, something that I find a real gift is pet care. If they are going to be away from home a lot, it's stressful for pets. Even at home, life will become very different. Pets fall low on the priority list in tough times like this, sadly. When I was in the hospital, I know my brother's girlfriend (now wife) took my beloved dog for walks, and I will be forever grateful to her for that! My pets played an integral role in my rehab, but I still couldn't offer them all that they needed all the time. Offering your friend help with walks, play time, or even cuddles with pets is much needed and a huge relief for the pets and their people!

    All my best to your friend!

    20 agree
    • It sounds like you are surrounded by a lot of great people! I think you may have suggested the perfect role (pet caretaker) for me, so thank you!

      1 agrees
    • Give your friend the book The Cure For All Cancers by Hulda Clark. I just followed it exactly and am making progress every minute.

  2. Cancer is so terrible and overwhelming but it is also something that causes the people around fighter to get used to happening fairly quickly. At first, offer to help out but she may be trying to maintain a sense of normalcy and decline your initial offer. You can still help out by doing spontaneous things for her that you know she needs but isn't asking for. Offering to take the kids to a museum on a morning after she has a chemo/radiation dose so she can sleep in or maybe if she is a constant puker like my mom was, taking the kids overnight on those days. Dropping off a frozen dinner to keep for a night that she needs it is always helpful. Keeping her in good spirits by treating her like the friend that you love and not the sick person is needed for that person to keep their head on straight.
    As a caring, close friend you will be most needed a few months down the road when all the offers wear off and she really needs it. With cancer, the fighters usually start off strong and positive giving off the air that they are doing this and will beat it. But all fighters have that day, week or month later on where they are losing hope, just got the news that it's spreading or even that it is still the same. Those moments, are when you friend will need you most.

    18 agree
  3. How about a friend who likes kids and is good with them take their kids one or two nights a month? That way your friend and her spouse can have a night to themselves. They can do a date night or just have some time together to unwind.

    10 agree
    • this! offering childcare & taking the kids out of the home is so great. the parents can have time together, either away or stay in… or if your friend isn't up to it, this is time when she doesn't have to put on a brave face in her home, which can become just as exhausting as cancer can be. Being able to let go and cry and not worry that a child will walk in and get scared can be such a relief, as strange as it sounds. Plus, you're giving the kids an escape and taking their minds off of the thing that's eating up their parent's time, so double bonus.

      3 agree
  4. This is a difficult time, for everyone, but obviously especially for the family. The costs can be devastating, even with insurance. My friend is currently going thru Chemo and she has decided that she chose when to lose her hair, so she now sports a purple mohawk and also has a vast array of wigs for office attire and katy perry nights. She also has a buttload of friends pulling for her that are using to set up fund raising events, friends selling the pins of the lapel type in the ribbon color for the specific type of cancer. Again, this woman has insurance but co-pays and incidentals are also killer. Be strong and encourage her entire support network to do small things all over. Good luck to your friend and you.

    9 agree
    • I always forget about the cost factor. Thankfully, we live in Canada so that is not a concern for us, it is all taken care of, but yes, for people reading in places without that sort of health care, money would be a huge factor.

      4 agree
      • And even in Canada, the cost of travel, time off work, extra meds (prescription/vitamins), clothes/wigs/etc that fit, kids in childcare, all of those things, can add up. If the family has to travel for treatment, and stay somewhere besides homes, that can be a huge cost.

        5 agree
      • I live in Canada too, and work in the cancer field. Some patients actually say it's harder here, because everyone assumes healthcare covers your costs. Friends don't always step forward with financial/in-kind help because it's assumed medicare pays. In fact, the following aren't covered in Canada, and this is especially true if you don't have private insurance:

        – Out-of-hospital cancer and supportive drugs (like anti-nausea meds). The average cost of a course of cancer drugs in Canada is $65,000, and if your private insurance won't pay, you must pay out-of-pocket. There are also insurance caps, co-pays and deductibles that can be very high.
        – travel to medical appointments
        – parking ($15-ish a day)
        – overnight stays
        – childcare
        – accessories like wigs and prosthetics
        – etc

        In Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society ( runs a helpline (1-888-939-3333) that will answer *any* questions. You could always point your friend in its direction. They'll do medical questions, talk about treatment options, wigs, your sex life during cancer, financial difficulties, palliative care, the works. Our patients often find it a useful one-stop shop when they need more expert help than friends can give.

        Finally, the cancer journey can be long. It doesn't stop when chemo stops. I'd urge you to keep up the support as your friend transitions to survivorship.

        Good luck!

        10 agree
        • On the topic of costs, it may be helpful to someone if you can do any research about what they *are* entitled to. (Time-consuming research can suck if you're ill.)

          So, taking the list above as an example – in the UK, many of these are things that you can receive for free (extra medication, hospital stays, parking at hospital, wigs) or claim back money for (travel to the hospital, childcare). But not everyone realises, resulting in unnecessary expense. So, while most hospitals offer free (or very reduced) parking for cancer patients, up to two-thirds of cancer patients still pay full-price for their parking.

          If you can do a bit of research about stuff that is applicable in your area, that could help your friend a lot.

          4 agree
        • Doesn't this depend on (and vary widely based on) the province you live in? I've lived in BC for a few years, and I thought I saw an article not so long ago about the differences of cancer patient care from province to province. (Or maybe I dreamed it. I've been reading a lot of books lately in which cancer plays a big role.)

          1 agrees
          • Definitely true that this can vary by province. I know in Saskatchewan that if drugs are not covered by your health plan and/or by the provincial drug plan, you can apply for "exceptional drug status." My dad did this for his cancer drugs.

  5. I second being there in the future when the offers have died down but become needed because its hard to stay strong. And that remaining a friend rather than becoming a carer is such a help. It encourages a sense of normal especially since it the big C can become your whole life and having something else is a great help, even conversation about the latest development at work. Also lots of little things, being there a little a lot is better than being there a lot a little.

    When I was diagnosed it was a friend who was in your situation (lived several hours away) that helped me through the months of treatment. She simply paid attention to my facebook status and acted on rectifying any negative ones in any way she could. So a facebook status commenting on how Im finding day-time TV sucks by day 4 resulted in a phonecall to just catch up. Talking about the antics of her kid and what gossiping about life was a relief to being stuck in the house recovering from surgery. When my facebook status was about how I had run out of lavander oil she sent me a gift basket of lavander bath and aromatherapy stuff. If she had asked me if I needed anything, even directly if I wanted to be sent lavander stuff I would have said no to not be a burden (hating being a burden was one of my main feelings), having it sent as a gift was so heartwarming at such a depressing time. Saying 'just be there' sounds so tripe but when heartfelt and done right it is the best thing to do.

    14 agree
  6. My cousin found out she had cancer a few years ago (in remission now, yay!) She lives across the country from me, but we kept in touch online. And as a person who watched from afar, I have 2 suggestions of ways to help:
    First, celebrate the little things. Anything that's good to celebrate is a reason to celebrate. I would occasionally send flowers when good things would happen during the particularly bad times.
    Second, I would give a gift certificate for a housekeeper. While I personally didn't do this, my cousin ended up hiring a maid during her illness, and that was a huge help to her – so much so that she continues to get maid service twice a month.

    Like the question-asker mentioned – help with the practical things is really worthwhile.

    2 agree
  7. Cancer is one of those things that affects everybody a bit differently. It doesn't hurt to ask directly what your friend needs help with the most. Truthfully, the answer might be 'paying for these medical bills' and I know most of us aren't in a great position to help with that, but maybe there are other things you can do to help support the family financially a bit, like grocery store giftcards or offering to cover their water bill for a few months…

    I will say, specific things that you can do to help might be offering to watch her kids for her now and again, especially if she's having a difficult time with her treatment. Offering to take them out to a park to play might be a huge relief. Cooking meals for the family, especially the sort that can be frozen and heated up when needed, offering to come clean up now and again. Things that cost very little from you but time can wind up saving the family a lot of money.

    There's also just emotional support. Calling to check in on your friends now and again without always being that "Are you okay?" person. Even simple things like laughing about something you saw on television the other day or sharing a funny story can help remind your friend that there is a life outside of cancer, and that even though it's a huge thing in their life right now, it's not the ONLY thing. And when your friend DOES want to talk about it, be a sympathetic listener.

    3 agree
  8. After a family tragedy, the single most helpful thing a friend of mine did was to make himself the coordinator for Project Help Jess Get Through. Not only did it take a huge load off my shoulders, it made everyone else's efforts way more effective too.

    Here are some of the things he did:
    – Maintained a list of everyone who offered to help.
    – Rotated people who were on "front-line" duty every two weeks, so no one got burned out, and I got sustained care for as long as I needed it.
    – Got to know my day-to-day needs and helped me figure out what I needed help with and what I could handle myself.
    – Served as a point person when someone said, "Let me know how I can help." I could just have them call him and he would translate their good intentions into action.
    – Kept people who would need ME to comfort THEM in roles where they weren't interacting with me face-to-face.

    Needs assessment is probably best done locally, but everything else could be handled online or by phone.

    Doing this work doesn't look as overtly helpful as, say, cooking a meal or caring for the kids – but god, I can't tell you what a difference it made to me.

    27 agree
  9. As someone who's been through some sucky stuff this last year, I very much appreciated three things.

    1. The friends who stayed current enough that I could just fill them in on whatever had developed since my last doctor conversation. It was so hard when people who'd been out of touch needed to be filled in from the beginning. But when I could say 'oh, we confirmed that speculation from last week, but that other test didn't give answers' and they knew which things I meant, it was restful to talk about it.

    2. People who didn't wish me a cheery ending ("You'll beat this thing!). I might not have a good resolution to this stuff (in my case, not fatal or anything). We don't know. I appreciated people who simply acknowledged that it was really bad. We'll know in a few years whether we get an OK ending.

    3. People who didn't make me handle their emotional reactions. Other people's emotional reactions were exhausting and I was already exhausted from my own. I did like empathy. Their crying would often set off my own, which in sometimes helped and sometimes was just more crying.

    I guess I'm describing someone who could share the intellectual part, the musing over diagnoses and daily observations about being very sick. Maybe that's not for everyone; maybe most people want the emotional support. But it was something I was very grateful for when I got it.

    7 agree
    • I am relieved to hear someone else mention the point in #3… I am recovering from major surgery as cancer treatment and this has been the single hardest part… People have the very best intentions, but they don't realize how hard it is to feel like you have to cheer them up about the situation… visits are wonderful, but people forget you need your rest, and not constant visitors that want to hear the same story over and over…

      2 agree
  10. When people I know are going through an ongoing tough time, I like to mail them notes. Letters are fairly unobtrusive, don't take up lots of space (like flowers or gifts), and can do a lot to brighten someone's day. Who doesn't like a surprise card in the mail?

    If you're too far away to give food or pop over to help with kids or pets, you can still send letters. I usually do it once a month, maybe a little more often, and I never make it a "let's catch up" letter because I don't want to make the recipient feel obligated to write back. I just write a few sentences encouraging them to stay strong and focus on the good stuff. If you know when their therapy is scheduled to be over, you can remind them that they're getting closer to beating this thing. Maybe include an quote you think would boost their spirits.

    4 agree
    • I couldn't agree more with this – when my mom was going through chemo and radiation, mail lifted her spirits so much. She ended up putting all the cards on the mantle so she could see them every day, even the ones when she was too weak to get out of bed. At the time, I was living in Asia (my parents are in the US) so I got to send her lots of little notes. Don't worry about sending big letters – just a silly card with a 'Thinking of you!' can make a long day better. Mail for her kids and/or spouse might be nice too. To anyone that knows someone fighting an illness and isn't sure whether to send a card: just do it. Even my brother's ex sent my mom a card and every single one made her smile.

      The other thing I would add is any kind of landscape/snow/etc. services that your friend's family may use. When my mom was sick my dad had to shovel the snow every day and he said it was horrible, being outside in the cold and knowing his wife was inside because she couldn't handle the weather and physical activity.

      1 agrees
  11. When I first developed fibromyalgia… I dropped off the face of the earth. What meant the most to me were the few friends that would check on me and not let me disappear. It isn't the same as Cancer, but I still dealt with pain/fatigue/general sense of feeling crappy. I'm not the kind of person to broadcast my woes to the world, if I'm having an icky day, I won't let the whole world know, but if you ask, I'll let you know. Just be there for them, and ask them how they are doing.

    3 agree
  12. When my mama's very best and oldest friend was diagnosed with bowel cancer she just happened to be here in oz visiting home – her kids and husband were still living in africa. The difficult task of re-situating the family then began. Something that made a big difference was making sure everyone in their lives was informed, for example: a roster was designed for who was picking the kids up from school, when the school was given a copy of this and contact details of everyone involved so mum never had to be bothered if there was a mix up and never had to wonder if the kids were being taken care of. This ended one of her major stressors.

    I wasnt able to be one of the "useful" friends so much so i just tried to make her life a little more special. When you are so sensitive and feeling horrible I think the little luxuries make life bearable. Treatment can make skin very sensitive so lovely bedding, super soft blankets and towels, fluffy bedsocks can be a great relief. Some people develop chemical sensitivity so fragrance free bath and body products can really help.

    That "mums guilt" about spending money on things like that doesnt go away, from my experience, so they arent often likely to buy these comforts for themselves but it does make such a difference.

    Pay attention to what their personal issues are and try to meet those with your gifts – while a casserole may be a lovely thought on your part, if the kids are picky and the recipient is having trouble keeping food down then it may just be an added stress finding something to do with it.

    My final generalised statement: dont walk on eggshells, try and treat your friend the same because noone wants to be reminded that they are sick, they want to get as much life as they can. They want to be themselves as much as possible, not just "the one with cancer"!!!

    4 agree
  13. In addition to emotional support and food, if you can try to find out what other little things this diagnosis may be doing to impact their life and things that are important to them.

    "I was looking forward to planting my vegetable garden, but now I don't have the energy." Can you or some friends help get the garden started and tend it for a while so that when they're feeling up to it they can tend it themselves later in the season?

    "It's the beginning of summer and I was looking forward to spending more time outdoors, but now I'm too tired to leave the house." Can you plan picnics or outings or drives-with-the-windows-down-through-beautiful-areas to help them get some sunshine and fresh air? Or maybe contribute a deck lounge chair so they can easily spend more time outside at home?

    (In the case of my friend's wife:) "I have to take several months off work for treatment, and I'm going to be so bored stuck at home with nothing to do!" Can you find books, DVDs, craft projects, etc that this person may be interested in to keep them entertained and give them an escape from their illness?

    4 agree
  14. When some friends was going through major medical craziness in recent months, I made freezer Crockpot meals and casseroles for them to take out and use as needed. They could just put the meal into the crockpot (or oven), go to their appointments all day and dinner would be ready when they got home! If you are looking for freezer meal ideas, just look on Pinterest; there are TONS on there!

    I also made some healthy muffins (peanut butter banana flaxseed), wrapped them individually and froze them. It made for a quick, easy breakfast or snack that gave energy.

    Other than that, I listened; I made myself available to watch their little kid or run to the pharmacy to pick up meds.

    1 agrees
  15. A very close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28. We live on opposite sides of the continent, so I couldn't really do anything to physically help her.

    What I COULD do was forward her pictures of adorable animals to make her smile, so that's what I did.

    I also tried to send her bagels from the famously-awesome bagel place on my side of the country, but that did not go so well unfortunately.

    2 agree
    • Yes, this is good. We actually drove out to see her this weekend and went out for lunch. She clearly just wanted a 'normal' day, so that's what we did. We let her talk (it is all really new) then just hung out. We had lunch. We ordered fun cocktails. We bought new sunhats and went shopping. She said she needed that day quite badly because everyone keeps calling/dropping by and just crying.

      1 agrees
  16. Prepared meals and raise money. As a friend I recently lost to cancer said, "Turns out cancer is expensive." Be open to understanding what they really need, not what you necessarily want to give. Don't send a bunch of junk that you think would be nice for them to have, they might not have the time and energy to deal with it. See if they have enough comfy PJ's. Don't be waiting around for thank-you's from someone who might be too sick to speak, be there to talk when they need it but don't push for the previous reason.

    3 agree
  17. There are so many great ideas here! My mom had breast cancer on and off for 12 years before she passed away last month. Through the years of her treatments and then when she was in the hospital, it helped her and my family when others were around us to help out. Having tons of yummy and nutritious food on hand constantly was really helpful, but make sure that they don't already have a ton of food, because a lot of it will end up going to waste. Also, being there (whether physically or over the phone/Internet) to talk about just the mundane bits of life help so much in redeveloping a sense of normalcy. Sending fun reminders of your friendship (my best friend who lives two hours away just sent me a whole bunch of books that she knew I would enjoy) help a lot, too. Think of the little things that you do everyday that your friend might need help with, and then offer, especially with the kids. My mom worked pretty much full time until two weeks before she went into the hospital, because she *hated* being at home and sitting around. Help your friend recreate that normalcy as much as possible, without completely wiping her out.

    2 agree
  18. Been through this a few times with friends & family, and yes, it's definitely a crappy time. Sounds like other posters here have made excellent 'being there' suggestions, so I'm just going to talk practicalities. Gift cards for meals or groceries are great, but don't forget about gas cards. Whether it's for the person to get to treatments, or for family members travelling a lot to be with them, these are very handy, and make for less out-of-pocket expense. If the centre or hospital they are going to for treatment has any sort of parking pass set-up, a pass or set of tickets/tokens for same, this stuff comes in handy. And yes, even though many things are covered here in Canada, there are incidentals (like parking!) that are not….if your friend needs meal replacements (ie Boost) to help gain/maintain weight, then either a case of this, or a drug store gift card, are good ideas. And sometimes, depending on the situation, it can be awhile between when a person may stop working and any benefits (insurance, disability, unemployment, etc) can kick in. If you have the means to just pay (or pay for part of), your friend's water, electric, heating bill, just do it. People sometimes get offended to be offered financial help, but if they see their electric bill is $40 less than usual, they tend to shrug & think, well, maybe we used less power this month. Frankly, you can go into (or call) any utility company to make a payment on any acct if you have the address, & they don't care – they 'will' take your money, LOL! But if you're really close to someone & know they'll be OK with it, give them an envelope of cash & just tell them it's for any out of pocket costs they may have right now. And I mean 'cash' – don't e-transfer funds to bank accts or send a cheque, because some wage replacement programs, esp. of the social service variety, frown on unknown deposits & will deduct them back off of the recipient's next cheque from them – so then, not helpful. Just some ideas!

    3 agree
    • Gas cards are a *great* idea. Having seen it with my father, there is a LOT of travel for immediate family. And i love the idea of just paying their bills. Nice.

      1 agrees
    • Oh yes. Gas cards. There will be a lot of running back and forth to treatment places. Also cleaning services, landscape services, childcare if they're a parent, — any service you can help pay or provide is awesome.

      2 agree
  19. Watch the lasagnas. My grandpa died and grandma ended up trying to cram 7 frozen lasagnas in her freezer. While thoughtful, it was a tad much.

    That being said, I've heard of the Meal Train signup where people can pick days of the week to provide meals and it can rotate so people don't get burned out. But I say, if you're going to sign up for a meal, know what your family likes. While it's nice that someone brought frozen soup (easy) after my son was born…I never used it because I didn't actually like soup. A quick stop at the Thai truck down the street on the way home would have been just as cheap and easier and more appreciated (aka eaten). Maybe not everyone's as picky as me, but if you have cancer I doubt you'll want to eat stuff that you don't like just to 'be nice.'

    I also want to echo the childcare and pet care advice from posters above.

    2 agree
  20. My husband is going through his second round of chemo treatment for now recurrent rectal cancer, and I have two young kids, so I've kind of been there.

    Email. Doesn't have to be anything big, just an "I'm thinking of you!" My grandmother always adds "Don't feel like you have to write back!" which is so helpful, because I do like to write back, but sometimes I just don't have the energy. But those little check in emails go a lonnnng way.

    Also, I wouldn't ask anything about prognosis unless she volunteers the information. I also wouldn't assume that everything's going to be fine. The best that I could do, the best that I can do now, is just take it day by day. Reminders otherwise are a little overwhelming.

    We had people make us meals, but I would have loved grocery store gift cards or gas cards. Our insurance covered all of treatment, and disability insurance covered some of the lost income, but we were broke broke broke. The meals were nice, but the reason I liked them was because of how much they saved me on groceries.

    Finally, I don't know if you are friendly with her spouse, but don't forget that their life is going to change dramatically too. The whole family needs support, not just the person with cancer.

    5 agree
  21. A good friend of mine in Maine (I'm in CT) was diagnosed with severe lymphoma and a slew of complications. I've been scrambling for ideas and ways to support him and his wife and kids. I absolutely love the idea of sending letters/packages, and will definitely try it!

  22. My best friend was diagnosed with leukaemia at the start of the summer before I left for University (thankfully, she's fine now — she was my maid of honour last summer!).

    Some things that I or others did that helped:

    Practical stuff:
    -Parking passes for the hospital. There was actually an organization that gave them out to families of kids with cancer, and they really helped keep the costs down for all of us who were visiting her a lot.
    -Food, especially stuff that could be reheated in the microwave at the hospital while she was an in-patient.
    -Random little things like high SPF sunscreen when chemo made her über sun-sensitive, nice hand sanitizer when she had practically no immune system, and even tape / sticky-tack for putting up cards & pictures on the walls of her hospital room

    Fun stuff:
    -Crazy wigs, funky hats, and awesome scarves when she lost her hair
    -Pictures / cards to make the hospital room less hospital-y

    Being-there stuff:
    -Supporting not just the patient, but the whole family/other supporters — I remember one time when my friend's dad just needed a hug and a shoulder to cry on, out of sight of my friend. People can get really drained by always supporting, and then they need to be offered support, as well.
    -Doing normal-ish things. Making friendship bracelets together, discussing thoroughly confused feelings about guys, reminiscing about crazy things we'd done together… Talking about not-cancer is sometimes really good.

    1 agrees
  23. The Ring Theory is always good to remember when someone is undergoing a traumatic time (whether it's cancer, divorce, what have you.) In a nutshell, draw a series of circles-within-circles. The person undergoing the trauma goes in the middle, the people closest to him/her in the next ring out, etc. The rule is simple: you can complain/talk about how unfair it is/moan/be angry to anyone in a circle larger than yours. The person in the center? Can kvetch to anyone. But they don't need to hear YOU kvetching… they need you to be supportive and understanding. Save your complaining for people further away from from the center of the trauma.

    You can read the full article here:

    7 agree
    • That is really interesting! It prevents the person undergoing the trauma from having to comfort others. It also provides a nice visual for how a trauma resonates through a community but doesn't affect everyone to the same extent. Thank you for sharing this!

      2 agree
    • I love this idea of complaining outwards. When my mother was terminally ill we ended up having to ask one of her long time friends to stop coming because every time she came she would sit with my mother and sob about how heartbroken she was that mum was dying. It was so emotionally exhausting for mum that it just had to stop! I understood how she was feeling, I was devastated too and had my own breakdowns, but once my mother got really sick she just needed peace and love.

      2 agree
  24. There's a whole bunch of good advice above; and I want to add another bit.

    When you're talking to her, if she does open up emotionally, DON'T say "I know how you feel". Chances are, you really, really don't, unless you've had cancer yourself.

    Maybe this is a personal bugbear of mine, but it's something I try really hard not to do, and it's been commented on appreciatively in the past..

    5 agree
    • Ugh, I agree. That phrase never seems to work, not with illness, not with grief, not with anything.

      Better thing to say (which still aren't perfect):
      "I'm sorry you are going through this really difficult time."

      1 agrees
  25. It definitely depends on the situation the friend is in. Try not to make her (or him) feel like a charity case. This diagnosis does not change who they are – they are still your friend, with all their good and bad personality traits and hobbies, even if they may be scared and tired and have other things to do.

    Apart form that, do practical things that do not make your friend feel like an invalid. Offer to take her kids with you for a weekend, run errands and such.

  26. Some really good things have been said here!

    My mum has cancer, but is currently out-of-treatment and feeling well.

    Some things I found (and nearly all of these apply to the patient's close family too).

    1 – Everyone says don't offer general help, but I say do! And then follow it up with a specific offer. My mum had a list of people who had offered to help in general and she did call a few of them when something specific came up. For me, I knew exactly what I needed but nobody ever offered so I never asked.

    2 – The maid service idea is a great one, but at the same time be aware that their home may become a sanctuary where they don't want strangers, so I'd ask before sending the maid service over (that should be obvious!)

    3 – My mum found it very difficult to plan ahead for visits etc, but she also found it hard when people just popped over. The people who did it best would ring up and say: "We were thinking of coming over in an hour – are you feeling up to it?". That provided forewarning without having to know how she was going to feel days in advance. Also, unless you're the really close type of friend, don't stay longer than an hour at the most. (Unfortunately, we found that the really close friends who could have stayed longer were the ones who kept their visits brief out of consideration and everyone else outstayed their welcome, never mind).

    4 – Notes and flowers in the mail – great, but I'd echo what someone else said that it's nice to include a note about "don't feel like you need to reply". Also, my mum found flowers stressful because my step-dad couldn't put them in a vase himself (I don't know, maybe he didn't know where the vases were!) and then they'd need the water changing etc. It was the sort of thing that felt like too much when she was feeling poorly. I also know some people hate getting flowers because they die too quickly, and that's not always a metaphor that's needed in tough times. So, flowers are great if the rest of the household can handle them! Pot plants are a little easier.

    4 – My partner's mum made us packed lunches for long days in the hospital, those were really appreciated.

    5 – Everyone assumed I wouldn't want to talk about it, and that was just as bad as making me talking about it all the time! My best friend would just ask if I wanted to talk about it that day or not, that helped.

    6 – Here's an article that my mum and I felt was pretty spot on – – but the key thing to remember is the last paragraph:

    If you recognise things that you have said or done yourself within this list, don't feel bad about it, at all. I most certainly have, and I've said and done much, much worse too; it took being on the receiving end before I realised what it could feel like. The thing is this: giant illness is a time of great intensity, and even the most cack-handed expressions of support or love are better than a smack in the face with a wet tea-towel. People feel helpless when they see that their friend is suffering. Sometimes – often – they say the wrong thing. But they are there, doing the best that they can, at a terrible, abject time. That's the most important thing of all. I look back on those grisly moments of ineptitude and clumsiness with exasperated amusement and tender, despairing, deep, deep fondness. The great lesson I learned from having cancer, was how splendid my friends were, whatever their odd little longueurs. They all, in their different ways, let me know that they loved me, and that is the most helpful thing of all. I'm so lucky to have them.

    It is much more important to try and help than get tangled up in doubt about what is best and end up doing nothing!

    (Here was some response to that article

    5 agree
  27. Just want to add, not as a bummer but rather just a gentle reminder, that the food people usually eat may not be suitable for cancer patients. Many times, people fighting cancer with chemo therapy and/or radiotion therapy suffer from loss of appetite, get nauseous or have trouble swallowing or generating enough saliva to break food down. TheKitchn has done a few articles with great tips about these issues.

    What it comes down to is: don't cook for a longer period of time at once, try to adapt meals as treatment (and side effects) progresses and ask what the person wants and needs nutrition wise. A friend's father lost a lot of weight while suffering from bowel cancer, and he had to eat three desserts each day to retain his weight. He hated it, because he had also lost his taste. Strong flavors and different textures can help a lot to make up for not tasting anything.

    And last but not least, you are a great person for wanting to help your friend. Even though you live far away, every bit of selfless attention can help a sick person and their family a lot.

    4 agree
    • Totally second that providing food is awesome for family but may not work for the cancer patient. My birth mom had a really limited range of foods she could keep down. So if you are dropping off food, make sure you know who that food is for (kids, family, cancer patient) and adapt accordingly.

  28. My sister in law has been fighting ovarian cancer in one form or another, for the last 6 years. it's mean and nasty and we hate it. However, she has found great support from young adult cancer support groups, specifically one called Young Adult Cancer Canada. She also just finished a web series called Valleys on her experience and those of her husband, daughter and other care givers and support network that was put up on Huffington Post last month.

    The whole purpose of the series was to try and fill some gaps in the support out there for young adults who have very different needs and experiences when it comes to living with cancer. She and another friend of hers also with ovarian cancer keep blogs – but their diseases are both quite advanced, so they may be a bit harder to read, but Amy's links to all kinds of other cancer organizations and all the Valleys videos:

    And Alicia's:

    2 agree
    • I will definitely read these links, thank you. And thanks to all the great suggestions here. I am sure they will help not just me but others who need this sort of info.

      Edited – i just glanced at Alicia's quickly here at work – she is here in Toronto. Definitely be good to see how it goes for someone local. Thanks again.

      • My sister in law is in the GTA too, she is treated at PMH, so her experience is all pretty local too, if that helps.

  29. I don't have cancer but I have been fighting chronic painful illness since 2007 and my cousin has been battling Hodgkin's lymphoma since she was 12. She's my hero and is still fighting the lymphoma and is in remission from what they call second cancers resulting from the radiation treatment she was given as a child.

    Turns out I have multiple autoimmune disorders. Treatment is similar, currently I am on chemo and a biologic medication, both wipe out the immune system oh and yeah the hair.

    I can say thru the years friends and family are often at a loss about how to help especially when illness goes on for a long time as cancer often can. Lots of people are willing to help at the beginning but then the offers of help sort of trickle away and as the sick person you don't want to ask. It's a foolish pride thing. I know I will often avoid the phone when I am feeling the worst but I might check my email. Everyone is different. I withdraw at the time I need someone to talk to me the most. You'll have to ask your friend to be honest with you about this sort of thing. Depression comes with any serious illness.

    Grocery delivery. If there is a Von's nearby they deliver in most areas now where they have stores and ordering is all online. This saves me when I have no energy to shop.

    Laundry services. I was able to find a place I can drop off and pick up next day. I'm lucky to have my dad to do this for me and it's cheaper then paying to run the machines in my apartment building. With little ones even help with a load of wash now and then is nice.

    Prepared food delivery is super nice for the family but your friend may have really specific things she will want to eat with treatment both for health reasons and because its's all that sounds good. So communicating is key here.

    Little things mean a lot. A txt, an email a card in the mail. I know childcare was mentioned. If either of the babies has birthdays coming up help with that would probably be really appreciated. Even something really small with just the immediate family. I don't have children myself but I know how heart wrenching it can be to feel like family is missing out on milestones because of illness. So just a smaller version with fewer people can be really nice and memorable. It can help to alleviate some guilt that can come with being sick. That may sound strange to anyone who isn't sick but there is guilt. There shouldn't be but there can be.

    Also, so important with any cancer treatment the persons immune system will be compromised making exposure to to even a common cold dangerous. If you are sick or exposed to anyone who has been sick please stay home. I don't mean to sound harsh but I very nearly had to be hospitalized myself because of this type of situation. Lesson learned the hard way.

    3 agree
    • Thank you for this – hearing from someone like yourself is extremely helpful.

      I wish you well with your treatment. *hugs*

      1 agrees
  30. I had an intimate friend, 3y ago, who was diagnosed with cancer at 32. He had already had cancer as a child and we knew, as biologists, it was probable he might have it again, sooner or later in his life.
    I helped him two ways.

    One was by listening. I told him he didn't have to put up a front with me, that he could tell me all the things he couldn't tell his wife or his family because it would hurt them too much to hear. And he did. It was hard as all fucking hell, especially when he told me about how his prognosis was bad, how he'd rather die quicker than go through chemo again, of all the things he wished he could have still got to do but wouldn't. I never gave him an opinion, never urged him to anything, took his calls or met up with him whenever he needed it. I don't think it made him feel better, but maybe less anguished from keeping it all to himself.

    The other was by crying together. He said he didn't cry in front of his wife, for fear she'd think he had given up. And she didn't cry in front of him, probably, he thought, for the same reason. So we would just hold each other and cry. No talking, just physical contact and complete emotional abandonment.

    Very close to the end, he managed to tell me how important these two things had been to him. It's so so hard, but nothing is easy where the big fucking c is involved.

    4 agree
  31. My friend is a massage therapist and reiki practitioner. When he father was dying of cancer she did a lot of "leg scrub" treatments and other gentle massages. She said he really enjoyed it because so much of the 'touch' that happened while he was dying was 'bad touch' in the form of needles prodding and general hospital type touching. Her touching him in a loving way, through massage, or even giving reiki, was really helpful for him. When she told me this it seemed so simple and yet also so profound…people who are sick are often not touched enough (really, we're probably all not touched enough) and, with permission, a little TLC in this way could be really nice.

    3 agree
    • My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago and had a double mastectomy. After she came out of radiation treatments I used to give her back/shoulder massages with almond oil or vitamin E oil to help soothe her skin and help with the pain from the surgery. She wasn't able to give or receive hugs for a long time because they hurt too much, so being able to give her some kind of personal, loving touch was very important (for both of us). She told me later how much they helped her.

      1 agrees
  32. I'm a cancer survivor, 8 years "clean". So many good sentiments are echoed here- and bless you all for being so supportive and helpful to friends of yours or relatives who need(ed) you.

    It's true that everyone with cancer needs something different, but for me, the don'ts were not to act like everything was fine. I did appreciate when friends & relatives strove to give me some normalcy- but when it crossed over into denial, I felt like I was all alone. I didn't need weepy eyes and sympathy, I needed a well placed expletive and "Cancer can kiss my (insert favorite private body part here". I did need to hear from the people closest to me that they knew I was 1. Strong and 2. If anyone could beat it, I could. I didn't need sympathy- I needed to be told I was Superman. Even when I couldn't keep food down and looked like a radioactive Cabbage Patch Doll.

    I got a box from a friend filled with things that made me laugh. Surprising things- like a goofy keychain collection that they then asked other people to send me new ones for the collection, or a cow toy that pooped jellybeans. Cancer is some deep, terrifying, existential shit that is bigger than you can ever really comprehend, even when you have it. …Much more fun to poop jellybeans onto the table and remember that you're still human- you're not just "THE ONE WITH THE CANCER".

    One "I second that" to end on. Don't just say "I'll be here for you/whatever you need". I was nowhere sane or stable enough during my ordeal to manage anything, even help from others. Offer something(s) specific, or pick something you can help with and just go with it.

    2 agree
  33. I had an ovarian tumor a year and a half ago. It was a really terrifying experience and I was floored by all the practical and emotional support that my friends and family gave us.

    Meals and cleaning services are incredibly helpful. A note – if you want tupperware back, put your name on it. We were in such rough shape that we didn't track who gave us what so unless the people made an effort to come over and identify their tupperware in our giant pile, we wound up adopting it.

    Other ideas: dog walking or daycare services, laundry service, pedicure or manicure.

    One of the most amazing and beautiful things anyone did for me was when my step-mom gave me a pedicure. She went by my house and found my nail polish so that it was colours I liked and gave me a pedicure in the hospital while I was recovering from surgery. I was really drugged up and exhausted from all the visitors and I think I even dozed in and out of sleep the whole time. I still think of it as a great example of doing a service out of love, and thinking of it now is making me a little verkelpmt.

    The other thing I really appreciated was that family members and friends gave me the space to go through grieving my health. This process will be different for everyone, and different every day (I'd go from hopeful to angry to terrified to darkly humourous in a split second).

    2 agree
  34. For the past year, I've had a social work internship at a local cancer institute. Here are some suggestions, just based on what I've heard from my patients.

    1) The one that seems to jump to everyone's mind at first is, of course, food. We use food to show we care, and we nourish those we love, body and soul. Focusing on options which are healthy, comforting, and ready-to-go for the family in crisis is always a plus. and are both great resources for setting up meals. As a bonus, their blogs include recipes and other helpful tips.

    2) Childcare. And I don't just mean babysitting when Mommy/Daddy is at appointments or isn't feeling well. Take those kids out for ice cream or a movie. Learn age-appropriate ways to answer some of the tough questions they're bound to be struggling with. The Children's Treehouse Foundation is a great resource:

    3) If your friend has been working and is suddenly unable to, either temporarily or permanently, the loss of income is a huge concern. For some types of cancer, there are grants for which patients can apply, but none of them add up to much in the long run. If you and some friends and family can pool together some money to help them out with medical bills, utilities, rent/mortgage payments, groceries, or other necessities, you'll be taking an enormous load off their minds.

    4) Rides. Your friend will be going back and forth to their treatment center all the time. Depending on the severity of their illness and the types of treatment they are receiving, they may not feel up to driving themselves (or they may not even have access to a car?) And family members may not be able to take the time themselves. If you can offer a ride even every now and then, that's a huge help. And how about offering rides to get kids to soccer games, play dates, or other activities?

    Those are the suggestions I have off the top of my head. I hope they help. May your friend progress smoothly through her treatment and be well again soon.

    2 agree
  35. Raise money for bills, meds, supplies, etc.
    Make food
    Help shuttle to/from appointments
    Watch kids
    Be there to listen, give hugs, and pass the tissues.

    Don't try to fix everything, because you can't. You don't understand, you can't solve the issue, and you can't find the magic works to make everything okay. Admit that you don't know what to do or say, and then just be there for them.

    After two grandmothers, an aunt, and a mom with cancer, I can tell you the worst thing in the world is someone who tries to explain all the made-up answers to an overwhelming situation.

    Just…be there for them. 🙂

    1 agrees
  36. Grocery delivery or grocery runs can be really helpful. I know that was something I was asked to do for my birth mom occasionally. Or bringing food that did match what she could eat.

    Company in doses that they can actually deal with is good. If the cancer patient is an extrovert, be aware that they may have a ton of company and may feel they need to push themselves.

    Ask their loved ones what you can do. Those people may have better ideas of things that need to be done. I know my dad had lots of things he had planned to do and some he did do that he shouldn't have when recovering. Lots of people would have been happy to help but none of them knew the stupid things that would have helped. His wife knows about this stuff but probably wouldn't feel comfortable asking.

    Be realistic about your own limits. This may sound selfish but it's important to know when you can't take it, when you need to deal. Try to find ways to support them that give you the space. Maybe they're having a shitty day and you are at the limit for how much negativity you can listen to. If you can't find a way to redirect and cheer them up, then consider making an exit. They are not at their best and it's important to remember that. If you need to go, that's okay. Just do your best.

    1 agrees
  37. I am 36, undergoing chemotherapy for large tumor. I have two little kids (both under 5). I have a loving spouse who often works weekends. What I need (and my wonderful friends provide) is child care help in the evenings I am home with the kids. I am completely drained in the evening after being with them in the morning. I need someone to help me get dinner on the table (even if it is just takeout pizza), and help watch/play with the kids for a few hours. And have good adult conversation. If you can help me load the dishwasher that is amazing. Then I have enough strength to put my kids to bed. It makes such a difference.

    1 agrees
  38. When my Dad was going through cancer treatments, he really appreciated gift cards for movie rentals. Radiation and chemo treatments can leave you sitting in one place for long periods of time, and this helped entertain him and keep his mind off of it to a degree. Obviously this was a long time ago, but tablets and Amazon gift cards for books & movies would serve the same purpose.

    Recently I had a friend diagnosed. Another friend of ours took her to have her hair dyed in wild colors, to enjoy before she began to lose it. This is something she never would have considered before, and she had a lot of fun with it. I think it made her feel a sense of control, even if short lived. We had t-shirts made for her at work as a fundraiser and got permission to wear them on casual Fridays. These later served as our Relay for Life team uniform. I also threw her a scarf/hat/wig party. All of the guests were encouraged to dress the part, and bring a gift to "enhance our friend's courageous new look." We had a nice time and the company, support, and gifts were very well received. It helped to put a positive spin on the ordeal.

    2 agree
  39. I have ovarian cancer myself, though of course it doesn't make me the guru of cancer-coping advice, since every person's personality and their situation will hugely impact what will help them most (I don't have kids, for example, I can hardly even imagine the added terror and stress of coping with this illness while raising little ones).
    As far as practical help goes, I think that the things you mentioned that you and other friends are already trying to do are great ideas. Bear in mind that advanced ovarian cancer is not technically curable at this point in time (though depending on her stage and type, some surgery options may in fact be pretty much effectively permanent). The reason I mention this is that for many people on the outside, it's easy to treat cancer as an acute crisis; as though your friend is "fighting for her life" and she's somewhat promptly going to "beat cancer" or die. But for a lot of people with certain types and stages of cancer, (like myself) it's more like a chronic illness that *may* be a part of life for years to come. As I said, that depends entirely on the type and the stage. For her sake I hope that her cancer is less advanced, but it may be something she is dealing with for the foreseeable future. So there are two important things to keep in mind in that case: one of them is to not flood the family with help for a few months and then sort of forget/underestimate how much they may still be struggling, especially financially (and regarding childcare, how much she will probably be struggling to have NEARLY the energy she needs/wants to take care of her kids). Even if you can't afford to do much, just remembering to do little things like an occasional gift card to the local grocery store, or taking her kids for an afternoon after treatment so she can sleep/vomit for hours in peace. Lifesaving.
    The other one is just kind of a sensitivity to your language. When I found out my cancer was, officially/medically speaking, incurable, it was nearly unbearable for me to have people in my life cheerleading me on how I was going to "beat this". I wanted to scream at them that they needed to get it through their heads that this wasn't something I was going to live THROUGH, this was something, for the time being, I had to learn how to live WITH. It's really tough to have to reiterate those things over and over again to your well-meaning friends and family when it's tough enough trying to come to terms with that in your own head. It's also kind of insulting to the people who die from cancer, or her fears that she could be one of them: like death is a personal failure of someone who wasn't tough/strong/fighter enough.
    The other thing I'd say is important, especially right now in the early stages when she's dealing with shock, grief, panic, rage…etc…don't make her perform emotional labor for you, managing YOUR feelings about her cancer. I realize that's blunt advice to the point of harsh, but it's something I struggled with a lot early on. I even hid the news as long as I possibly could, just because I found even the prospect of other people's reactions and emotions to be so exhausting and overwhelming. Try to take your cues from her on how much to talk or not talk about it from one day, or hell, one moment to the next. The early stages are such a roller-coaster of emotions, especially when you factor in how much medications and various treatments will (probably) make her feel sick and literally fuck with her hormones so much that it will take some time (probably) for her to quite feel like herself. I for one have never really felt QUITE like myself again, even though it's been six years now and my coping skills have certainly improved. Let her talk, let her cry, let her be angry at the sheer awfulness of it all. And on days she feels ok, or wants to pretend she does, let her be normal. Laugh with her. A lot. Let her be a person instead of a cancer victim/fighter/survivor/symbol.

    1 agrees
  40. a close friend of mine was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the shocking age of 23; thankfully she is in total remission now, but she lost quite a few friends along the way. cancer freaks people out. they don't know what to say or do, so they keep their distance out of fear they may say the wrong thing. what i've learned from my friend is that there's no wrong thing, as long as you're there. from my own experience, i'd say that while making concrete plans sounds good, it can be difficult when someone is dealing with treatment and doesn't feel up to doing much. consider making a standing date–like "every sunday afternoon we hang out"–then let that date be whatever she needs. it could be help running errands, chilling on the couch watching a movie, babysitting while she naps, or even going out if she's feeling good that day. just be around regularly and make arranging plans as low-friction as possible.

    1 agrees

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