Advice for Family and Friends

Not knowing what to do or how to best help can be frustrating, so here are some pointers for family members and friends. You can also look at the Helpful Products & Gifts section for items that make really helpful and thoughtful gifts.

Obviously, the type of help will depend on your loved one’s circumstances, are they married or single, do they have kids, do they live alone or are their others in the household. Remember that most offers of help come in the first few weeks after the diagnosis, but treatment for cancer if it involves surgery, chemotherapy and particularly radiation could easily take over 6 months. Ask them early and ask them later if you can help. If your early offer is rejected, it may be accepted with enormous gratitude later. However, if they are fully occupied with dealing with their diagnosis and treatment, they may not have a lot of mental capacity left for working out what else they might need, so also ask family members. Family members may also be overwhelmed and initially may not be able to think of specifics, so here are some suggestions of things I found really helpful.

  • Provide precooked meals, ready to heat up
    If you aren’t a cook, then gift certificates to local restaurants that deliver are equally helpful.
  • Pick up groceries, prescriptions.
  • Driving to doctor’s appointments, radiation appointments.
  • Help with house-cleaning or laundry.
    Either stop by yourself or pay for a housekeeping service.
  • Be sensitive and be a good listener.
    Visit for short periods but be aware when your friend is tired and don’t stay too long. Listen to your friend. Often as women we work through hard issues by talking about them. Don’t try to solve their problems (you can’t) and avoid saying things like “I know how you must be feeling” unless you actually have been in a similar place. Instead focus on listening, empathizing and validating their feelings.
  • Offer to pick up and drop off their kids from school.
  • Offer to have their kids over for a play date after school.
    If they get some of the homework done too, even better!
  • Offer to watch the kids so she can nap.
  • Offer to give a foot, hand massage or head massage.
    Touch can be enormously therapeutic and healing.
  • Offer to go with her to help pick out a wig or hat prior to chemotherapy.
    Trying on wigs with a best-friend was one of the very few fun times I remember during the early stages of treatment.
  • Send notes.
    Some people have a knack for writing wonderful, encouraging notes. For the rest of you, please know that it is enough to say how sorry you are that they are going through this and that you are thinking of them. If you want to help in a practical way then offer that too.
  • Small, thoughtful gifts, just to let them know you are thinking about them are great.
    It might be a box of ginger tea bags to help with nausea, a great book (preferably nothing too serious), a great scented candle or a magazine.
  • Field questions and provide information to others.
    Having cancer and being treated for it is tiring. While talking to a few people is helpful, talking to everyone who wants to know how you are doing is tiring. There are a number of web sites, such as CaringBridge, where you can post updates on how your loved one is doing and others can leave messages. Setting this up and maintaining this for your loved one is a great help. Alternatively, updates on Facebook or an individual blog site are also great. These can also be useful when needing help; you can post a list of ways people could help.
  • If you are a close friend of the spouse/partner, then consider sitting with your friend at the hospital while their spouse is undergoing surgery.
    One of my husband’s friends took a day off work to do this (his wife had been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer 10 years earlier) and just sat quietly with my husband in the waiting room for the entire day. My husband said that it was a huge comfort.
  • Offer help to the spouse/partner so that they can occasionally take a little time off for themselves to avoid caregiver burn-out.