How to help someone during cancer treatment

Advice for friends and family of a person diagnosed with cancer

A cancer diagnosis can be scary. Friends and family are often uncertain about how best to support and help the person with cancer.

Allison Schaffer, program manager of the Patient and Family Resource Center at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, has worked in oncology for 14 years. In that time, she has seen and heard what can help or hurt a patient. Schaffer offers helpful tips and warns against common slip-ups when dealing with a loved one’s cancer treatment.

What is something a loved one can say that really helps a cancer patient and why?

Two things that are very simple:

  • If you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen.
  • I’m not sure what to say but I want you to know I care.

It really opens the door up for the patient to know that the other person is there and wants to listen, be available and supportive. Many times people don’t always know what to say, so often they say nothing and that can be more hurtful.

How are some ways people can show support?

One of the first things is for people to simply show up. What I mean by show up is being physically present or checking in with phone calls or texts or sending cards or just bringing things without the expectation of the patient reciprocating or responding.

  • Step up and help with specific tasks, such as offering to be a point person for communication. Serve as a patient’s updater or person of contact so when friends and family have questions and want to know how things are going there is someone in their circle that serves as a communication captain.
  • Go to medical appointments to take notes about the visit and to be company in the waiting room or during long appointments or treatments.
  • Focus on more than just the cancer. Acknowledge the patient is more than their disease and have conversations about something other than cancer.
  • Let a patient express all of their feelings. Sometimes it’s going to be to cry, sometimes it’s going to be to vent, sometimes it’s going to be to laugh, sometimes it’s going to be to say nothing at all. Allowing the person to express their full range of emotions is very helpful.

What are some gift or task ideas for friends that want to help?

It can be really helpful for there to be some coordination of caregiving and support offered by friends and family so they don’t have 10 meals dropped off on one night and that’s it. It’s important to know this might be more of a long-term support assistance needed, versus a short-term, everyone’s-going-to-do-it-in-a-week and then just walk away. People make Excel spreadsheets or use online resources for people to sign up so it can be really easy to coordinate the support and caregiving offers.

Some people are doers and they can go grocery shopping, pick up medications, deliver meals, take the kids for play dates, take the spouse and/or children out for a meal or an outing like the zoo, mow the lawn, walk the dog.

Some gifts for the patient specifically:

  • Short-term or long-term Netflix subscription
  • Music subscription
  • Gift cards to local grocery stores
  • Deliver books or gift cards for online books

What if a patient doesn’t appear grateful for supporters’ help?

When someone is dealing with cancer, there are lot of moving parts and pieces, and they may not be able to respond to say thank you in the time-sensitive manner they would otherwise. Give people some slack and know they will likely say thank you at some point, but it can be incredibly overwhelming for the patient to receive the outpouring of gestures and support. It can create some guilt for the patient. It can be hard for the person with cancer to try and figure out how to repay the people.

People should not expect immediate responses. It doesn’t mean that their gift or services are not received — it just means it’s hard to process it all.

What is the most important piece of advice you would offer to someone with a friend who is going through cancer treatment or has just finished?

Don’t make assumptions about how they are doing, feeling or responding to their cancer experience — instead ask and listen.

The end of cancer treatment is not the end of the experience. It’s not like you finish treatment and immediately go back to your normal life. That’s a hard realization for the person living with cancer as well as the family or friend to know that the experience goes past treatment.

Recovery from a cancer experience can often take longer physically and emotionally than you might expect. There’s no timeline for recovery. It’s not like, on this day you’re going to miraculously feel better — it’s a very gradual process.