Advice, What to do

What to Do (and Not Do) for a Cancer Patient

You want to help a friend, family member or colleague who’s recovering from cancer treatment, but you’re not sure how. That’s OK! We have ideas for you.

In fact, now is a great time to step in. Treatment is difficult, but cancer recovery has its own set of challenges

What many people don’t realize about cancer is that recovery is often the hardest point. Some of us may have been unwell at the time of diagnosis. But after treatments, most of us are very sick from protocol side effects. Yet this is when friends and family go back to their busy lives, and doctor’s appointments wind down. It’s a very lonely time.”– Lisa Lefebvre, Mend founder

Once treatments are over, patients need your support more than ever.

Not sure what to do? We’ll be your guide.

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No matter how you help, always keep these tips in mind.

  1. Simply touch base. Reach out and say hi. Your texts, emails, cards and visits make a difference. Your friend or loved one will appreciate knowing you’re thinking about him or her. Be clear that you don’t expect a reply. Facing a long list of messages to return can be daunting. Learn more about what to say and not say here.
  2. Don’t wait to be asked. Your friend or loved one may not have time or energy to ask for help. Be proactive. Anticipate his or her needs—then take care of them.
  3. Be specific. It’s an instinctive offer, but “How can I help?” is one of the least helpful things to say. It’s better to be specific. Instead of saying, “Let me know what I can do for you,” try “I’d like to pick up the kids from school every Friday. Is that OK?”
  4. Give choices. “Offer to cook or bring a meal, look after kids, do laundry, clean or walk the dog,” suggests clinical psychologist Errol J. Philip, PhD. Let your friend choose what works best.
  5. Schedule it. Instead of pitching in here and there, do it regularly. Make it weekly or bi-weekly. Your friend or loved one will appreciate help she or he can count on.
  6. Visit gently. Your friend may not be up for company, so don’t arrive unannounced. Keep scheduled visits short and simple, especially if he or she is very sick. A good rule of thumb is two people max, for a half hour or less.
  7. Don’t give unsolicited advice. Don’t suggest trying a new doctor or different treatment. Don’t recommend the latest diet plan. Questioning choices or suggesting alternatives erodes hope and confidence. It’s OK to ask if your friend or loved one is searching for resources, but don’t offer ideas unless you’re asked.
  8. Meet your friend where he or she is. “Some people want to talk, some don’t. Some people want company, some don’t,” says clinical psychologist Tammy A. Schuler, PhD. Pick up on cues. When in doubt, a simple “I’m thinking of you” text is non-intrusive and cheering.
  9. Expect ups and downs. Every day is different. Whether your loved one feels upbeat or feels like exploding, try to roll with what comes your way—and let it be.
  10. Don’t unload on your loved one. Use the “circle of grief” as your guide: A cancer patient is the innermost circle. Moving outward is his or her spouse, then close family and friends, and so on. If you have concerns, go outward. Never put it on someone closer to the innermost circle than you.

Now for specific ways you can help

  1. Offer practical support. If you’re a go-getter, this is for you. But if you’re not into repetitive tasks or feeling overloaded, try something else.
    • ­Run errands. Drop off dinner. Go grocery shopping. Pick up necessities. Clean out the refrigerator. Offer a ride to therapy or to Target.
    • Monitor meds. Keep track of prescriptions. Pick up refills. Organize medication so he or she doesn’t miss a dose.
    • Help with kids and pets. It takes a village, especially now. Offer to babysit or pick up kids from activities. Take the dog for a walk or an overnight stay. Clean the litter box. Fill the birdfeeder. Water the plants.
    • Organize helpers. Create a calendar to keep track of who, when and how others will pitch in. Online tools like Google Calendar are free and make it easy to spread the word and keep everyone on the same page.
    • Keep up the house. Hire a landscaper to mow the grass. Have neighborhood kids shovel the snow. Book a cleaning service.
    • Send a care package. “Care packages are welcomed treats,” says Sonja L. Faulkner, PhD, a psychologist and author who recovered from breast cancer. Trya soft knit cap, aloe vera, body cream, supplements, microwavable heating pads, books, magazines, crossword puzzles or CDs. MEND has many unique gift sets tailored to specific types of treatments and symptoms.
  1. Gather info. If you’re an info-seeker, this is a great way to help. But be mindful: While some people appreciate this kind of help, others don’t. Ask first.
    • Find resources. Gather information. Find support groups, physical therapists, recovery coaches or oncology massage specialists. But only do this if your friend or loved one asks.
    • Keep it simple. Don’t overload your friend or loved one. Gather information, consolidate it, and share it only when she or he is ready.
    • Update social networks. Post updates to CaringBridge or Facebook. Offer to sift through emails for important messages. Return phone calls for your patient
  1. Be a health booster.Help speed your friend or loved one’s recovery by making it easier to eat nutrient-dense foods and start moving again.
    • Get mornings going with a healthy breakfast. Protein shakes, low-sugar green juices, and oatmeal with dried fruits or nuts are high-energy options.
    • Prepare or buy meals. Drop off a veggie-centric dinner that’s heavy on whole grains and beans and low in sugar. Offer to eat it together. Order groceries online—pick healthy choices! —and have them delivered.
    • Eat out. But not just anywhere. Take your friend to restaurants with healthy options and healthy portions. Suggest starting the meal with a salad or sharing one.
    • Encourage movement. Take your friend or loved one to a yoga class to stretch muscles that have been continually contracting from time in bed. Arrange after-dinner strolls or early-morning tai chi. Being active is linked to better physical and emotional health.
  1. Take your friend or loved one out. Getting out of the house may give your friend a boost and remind him or her there’s a world other than cancer. But don’t push.
    • Return to old favorites. Your loved one may miss old hobbies and activities. Help him or her re-engage with book clubs or lunches with friends. Bring your friend to the religious services he or she once enjoyed.
    • Inspire. New activities are very healing. Expand your friend’s world by taking him or her to a play, sporting event or museum exhibit. Suggest an art or yoga class you can take together.
    • Go outdoors. Introduce your loved one to the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Walk her or him through nature aimlessly and slowly, then focus on its beautiful smells, sounds and sights. Nature is a powerful way to both comfort and revitalize.
  1. Help with relaxation. Your friend or loved one may be worried about scan results or how to manage everything. You can be the eye of the storm.
    • Lead your friend through relaxation exercises. Meditation and deep breathing are linked to better health. If he or she is open to it do deep-breathing exercises together.
    • Locate an EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) psychotherapist. Certain therapies are especially effective for cancer patients—like EMDR, a unique emerging modality that combines talk therapy with body therapy. “I developed delayed PTSD a year after my treatment ended. It turned into a phobia of being touched. I was mortified. I couldn’t control it,” says Lefebvre. Her oncology psychologist suggested EMDR and it was incredibly helpful, she says.
    • Book a myofascial release session. Our fascia is a thin membrane that floats between our skin and our muscles. Like Saran wrap, it can get rumpled and stuck, especially after surgery or long periods in bed. It’s great for cancer patients because it helps them move more naturally. Find an expert in myofascial release or give a gift card.
    • Get artsy. Art reduces stress. Plan an activity like painting, drawing or working with clay. If writing is more his or her medium, buy a journal.
    • Bring music. Music can be incredibly soothing, says Sharon Seibel, who recovered from pancreatic cancer. Sharon’s husband, Harvard Medical School faculty member Mache Seibel, MD, gave her a CD of relaxing music while she was in treatment. “I had it playing 24/7 in the hospital and then for a month when I came home. It got me into a different zone,” she says.
  1. Offer emotional support. Just because treatment is over doesn’t mean your loved one doesn’t need to talk about a diagnosis or treatments any longer. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in cancer patients is often a delayed symptom. Your support is key.
    • Be a confidant. Be a trusted friend, a shoulder to cry on. Some experts suggest having a confidant may increase cancer patients’ seven-year survival rates by 10 percent.
    • Ask how his or her spirits are. Try asking, “What was good this week? What was difficult?” Don’t be afraid to talk about your life, too. People in recovery appreciate a break from their worries now and then, and it can feel good to be on the giving side of things for a change.
    • Don’t be afraid of silence. Your friend or loved one may want company, but fatigue makes it hard to talk or listen, says trauma therapist Julie Barthels, LCSW, who underwent treatment for breast cancer. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Do you just need some quiet time? I’m up for that.’”
    • Don’t try to solve your loved one’s problems. Listen before talking. Be a sounding board. People in recovery don’t want your advice. They just want you to be there.
    • Be normal. “Talk to me like a normal person,” suggests Dana Dinerman, who was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. Talk about your usual topics. Hug your friend. Share a good joke. Include him or her in projects and plans. If it’s too much, your friend will let you know.
    • Step in. During recovery, close friends and caregivers often experience “compassion fatigue.” If you consider yourself “just an acquaintance”, this is a great time to step in and be an active friend.
  1. Renew and inspire. Be an unofficial recovery coach. Help your friend or loved one repair, recover and renew.
    • Get a birdfeeder. Your friend may be so sick or fatigued that he or she is unable to read a book or watch TV, and the only option is to just stare at the ceiling. Give the gift of a birdfeeder so your friend has something to look at. Fill it with birdseed—and keep it filled. “The gift of a birdfeeder can bring beautiful scenery into our days,” says Lefebvre.
    • Redo the bedroom. During treatment, cancer patients are often in bed for months and may associate their bedrooms with sickness. Offer to help update the bedroom. Buy new linens, paint the walls, rearrange the furniture, hang a new piece of wall art. Give your friend a fresh start.
    • Add in fashion. “I had a friend who brought me over a bunch of great hats,” says Sharon Seibel. “I was wearing a baseball hat and she said, ‘How’s your hat collection?’ Next thing I knew, she came over with hats—and I had fun with them!” Here’s our selection.
    • Help your friend get in touch with his or her new reality. Many cancer patients have faced the possibility of what therapists gently call “a foreshortened future.” This can shake their long-held perceptions of who they are and what their purpose is. Introduce your friend or loved one to inspiring books by others with experience in this reckoning. Help him or her sort through emotions around this. Going to religious services may help—if he or she is interested.
    • Celebrate milestones. Have a party or bring everyone together for a meal, suggests Mache Seibel, MD. Mark the end of treatment or an anniversary. But check with your loved one first—and let him or her approve the guest list.
  1. Help caregivers. They need a break. The 24/7 togetherness can be tough on everyone.
    • Arrange a weekly night off. Have one friend visit with your friend at home while another takes his or her caregiver out for the evening. Make this a weekly event. Rotate the visitors.
    • Be a friend to a caregiver. Cancer patients often get lots of attention, while the caregiver—who is also experiencing significant life pressures—is relegated to the sidelines. Lend an ear. Be a healthy distraction. Send a Gift. Caregivers may need to express difficult feelings—or take a break from thinking about cancer.

Be the friend remembered for your actions during trying times. There are many favors that can make a difference. We hope these ideas offer you practical advice on how to support a loved one. For more cancer etiquette read our article What to Say (and Not Say) to a Cancer Patient.

Kara Mayer Robinson has a Master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She is a freelance journalist for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, WebMD and Women’s Health & Fitness. 
Lisa Lefebvre is the Founder of Mend After Cancer. She has experience recovering from 8 cancer-related surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, radiation protocols and hormone suppression therapy.