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

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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

Comments on How can I help my friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer?

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. 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:

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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).

  10. 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.

  11. 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. 🙂

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

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