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How to Help a Friend with Cancer | Helping Cancer Patients
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How to Help a Friend with Cancer

July 22, 2011

You’re at a loss for words or you’re worried about saying the wrong thing. You stay away because you think your friend has plenty of people helping out already. You say a small prayer for her health. But other than that, you’re not quite sure what to do. As a breast cancer survivor, many friends have asked what they can do for someone going through chemo or radiation treatment. I’ve put together my favorite ideas and what helped me out the most during my battle.


  • Does he/she have small children that require babysitting?  Knowing that you’re child is well taken care of in your absence is worth its weight in gold.  When I was going through radiation treatment, I had to be  at the hospital daily for a matter of twenty minutes: get undressed, get zapped, get dressed and go home.  But I couldn’t take my child with me. She couldn’t be in the treatment room and I obviously couldn’t leave her alone in the waiting room.  Offer up your babysitting services!
  • Meals are a biggie.  I wasn’t so much concerned with eating but I worried about my husband and child going without.  There are several routes to ensure your friend and their family is taken care of.  1) drop off prepared meals from places like Dream Dinners that can be frozen and served later.  2) recruit other friends and family to bring homemade meals during treatments.  Care Calendar is a web-based system to help organize this effort!
  • It was really important to stay hydrated during chemo. I downed drinks like Gatorade and bottled water mixed with Emergen-C. A cute little care package with a reusable bottle and a box of Emergen-C is a great gift idea. Throw in some trashy tabloid magazines and you’re golden. FYI – chemo wrecks the taste buds and sometimes certain brands of water taste better than others. You might want to ask first if your friend has any aversions if you plan on buying bottled water.
  • Treatment can seriously wipe a person out physically. Walking up the stairs in my own home was very trying somedays. Offer up your services to vacuum their house, do a couple loads of laundry, walk the family dog, take their kids to the park, or take out the trash cans. Everyday chores can become quite overwhelming – don’t let them.
  • A simple, well-written card is always welcomed!  But what do you say?   Tell them they are strong, that they are fighters and that their hair coming out means the drugs are working!  Encourage them to believe in their treatments and the education of their doctors.  Remind them of their support system and the love that surrounds them.  Cheer them on, as they get closer to finishing treatment.  Tell them that having a positive mental attitude makes a difference.  These words work wonders!  Still tongue-tied?  Hallmark stores have cancer specific cards.  Serious, religious, and funny ones.  Believe it or not, there is one that suits your needs.
  • Lower your expectations – at least temporarily.  I had a small falling out with a close friend during my own treatment.  I wasn’t keeping with with emails or phone calls and she became frustrated.  But I was hardly the same me during that time.  Chemo zaps your brainpower – it’s called “chemo brain” and it’s very real.  I just couldn’t care about anything other than surviving until my next treatment.  Try not to be offended if your friend doesn’t make the effort they once did.
  • Offer to go to their chemo sessions with them.  I didn’t always engage in conversation during treatment but it was always great to know I had someone there by my side.  Especially the first time because it was the scariest.  And definitely the last because it should be a celebration!
  • Encourage them to find a support group of patients also being treated for the same cancer.  There are so many online support groups and many hospitals offer group services.  It helps immensely to discuss thoughts, feelings, and experiences with someone also going through the same thing.  Twitter is another fantastic source for finding current patients and survivors.
  • A simple phone call, voicemail, or email just letting them know you are thinking of them.  A potted plant, some flowers, or a homemade card left on their porch step is always a sweet surprise too.
From this survivor’s perspective, you just want to feel like you aren’t alone.  Like you haven’t been forgotten.  Cancer and its treatment can be very isolating because your peers aren’t experiencing the same thing.  If you have any questions or worry about what may or may not be acceptable – please email me!  I’m happy to give you my two cents.
And finally, a very personal note:  While I was going through treatment I insisted to everyone, including my closest friends, my parents, and other loved ones, that everything was fine and that I was managing.  This was a lie.  I didn’t want to burden others with my needs.  I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable with my disease.  I wanted to ease their worries and fears and pretend all was fine.  Really pay attention, they might be crying out for your help.
Do you think these ideas are good?  Do you have any to add?
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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Courtney January 21, 2012 at 3:21 am

Thank you for sharing this! I lost my childhood best friend in 5th grade to cancer and know as I get older will come across more family and friends dealing with this illness. I will keep this in mind if the time comes. Thank you! I’m so glad to hear you say you are a survivor! Yay!


Kate McCarn January 21, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Moms will totally get this one. My aunt was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and some of her “close friends” have responded by telling her terrible stories about people they know who went through treatment and had an awful time. This is not helpful. Just as you wouldn’t tell a pregnant woman about your sister who was in labor for a week and now performs all basic bodily functions out of a single common cavity, keep your horror stories to yourself and be supportive!


Kelly January 23, 2012 at 8:42 am

This was perfect. My husband went through treatment and same thing…he was just different. Family had to adjust to frequent naps that occured from walking in the front door to the family room chair.

This is a must read post! Thank you for sharing it.


Truthful Mommy January 25, 2012 at 4:06 pm

THanks for this piece. No one ever knows what to do but everyone wants to help. I know just being there to offer services always is helpful. My nephew went through chemo as a toddler and anything we could do , babysit his sister, walk their dog, bring them food, stay with my nephew while his parents showered, just listen when his parents needed to cry or vent or rage. Great piece. THank you for sharing. I am pinning.!


Wendy January 25, 2012 at 4:58 pm

You nailed it! Thanks so much for stopping in! :-)


TheNextMartha January 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Thank you so much for this. Unfortunately, I’ll be using this advice soon.


Wendy January 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm

I’m sorry to hear that! Please feel free to shoot me any questions you may have. I’m an open book and happy to help out any way I can! Thanks for stopping by!


Candyce February 12, 2012 at 7:10 am

Excellent advice in a nutshell! As a survivor and friend to several in treatment, I declare this the perfect guide.


Brenda February 12, 2012 at 7:12 am

Thanks for sharing! My sister is going thru breast cancer. She had surgery, chemo and has 7 more radiation treatments. This makes me know I have helped in some ways and lets me know other ways to help. Again,thanks….


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