How to Help Your Friend With Cancer
Cancer is a life changing diagnosis. In addition to being emotionally overwhelming, it can be financially depleting. When you see a friend dealing with cancer treatments, there are many ways to help. We spoke to a group of women who had been through breast cancer treatments and asked them what their friends had done to help. Here are some examples of things you can do for your loved one while they are in treatment.
Cancer is expensive. In addition to the medical costs (even with good insurance), there is the extra gas required to get to treatments, parking fees, meals out, and not to mention missed income. Gift cards are a simple gift with big impact. Open gift cards can help pay for gas, bills, and other necessary expenses. Gift cards to specific restaurants near the treatment center are great because patients are often too tired to cook. Also great are gift cards for order-in possibilities such as Seamless or Uber Eats, when they neither want to cook or be in public.
One former patient had a neighbor who sent three meals a week. She said it was wonderful in part because she was too exhausted to think about grocery shopping or cooking, but also because their financial resources were so depleted due to treatment, it enabled them to eat well. It also enables spouses to relax with the patient and gives them a much needed break as well.
Several patients loved when their friends offered to drive them to treatments. Chemo can be exhausting, and having the moral support of a friend can be therapeutic. If you can’t stay with your friend during chemo, which can take hours, you can still drive them to and from.
If the patient has young children, childcare can be a huge issue. Offer to take the children so your friend doesn’t have to worry about them during treatment. Drive them to extracurriculars and pick them up from school. Offer to keep them overnight so your friend can have a quiet evening at home. Offer a place where the children can have a sense of normalcy, but also be someone they feel comfortable talking to if they need to vent.
Many people said the really appreciated when people sent messages of support throughout treatment. One woman said a friend sent her a card every single week throughout her treatments and it gave her something to look forward to every week. Several said a simple text saying, “I’m thinking of you” meant a lot, especially for those who didn’t feel up for company but appreciated knowing their friends were thinking of them.
Amazon Wish List
This was one of our favorites – one woman took things into her own hands and made an Amazon wish list. Whenever a friend asked how they could help, she sent the list, and added to it when she needed to. Hygiene products, pajamas, paper goods; anything she knew she would need. It allowed her to focus on treatment and was one less thing for her husband to have to worry about.
Video messages day of surgery
One woman said her a friend organized her family, friends and coworkers, who each filmed a short video of encouragement. She started receiving them before the procedure and they continued arriving after she woke up. She still watches them to this day.
Ask your friend what you can pick up at the grocery store. If you already know what some of their staple items are, pick up a few bags and drop them off. We heard from several people that they so appreciated when friends brought them bags of groceries.
Extended visits to cook and clean
Some people had family members stay with them while they recovered from surgery. They cooked, cleaned, drove the kids to activities, and ran the household so the patient could be fully rested. You may not be able to move in, but dropping by a couple of times a week to clean bathrooms and do dishes can be a huge help to someone who is too tired to get out of bed.
One woman said her aunt paid off her car when she was undergoing treatments. Large financial contributions aren’t a possibility for everyone, of course, but there are plenty of ways to ease the financial burden of cancer. Another woman said her coworkers pooled together and gave her an envelope full of cash on her last day of work. You can start a social media fundraiser, or contact neighbors, friends, and co-workers to pool together. Even with good insurance, cancer patients can rack up medical bills and expenses costing several thousand dollars. Every extra penny helps.
In person visits – but ask first
Some people really appreciated drop in visits, but use caution. Many patients are too physically or emotionally exhausted for company. Some patients, however, said many friends assumed they didn’t want visits, but they were actually desperate for company. If it’s a close friend, you probably know what they prefer. And of course, ask! (Note to patients – if you aren’t up for a visit, say so. You don’t owe anyone your energy while you’re in treatment or recovery. But if you want one, don’t hesitate to reach out!)
Not All Breast Cancers are Alike
There is no “hierarchy” of breast cancer, but different types require different treatment, which affect patients differently. Learn about the type of cancer your friend has. Inflammatory Breast Cancer, for instance, often requires a much more aggressive treatment than other cancers, has a high recurrence rate, and patients typically are not able to have reconstruction right away. Ask your friend about their treatment and do your own research so you can be a better support system. One patient had a friend who called the doctor that was treating her to ask what items they recommended for her specific treatment and recovery, and then bought a box full of items the hospital recommended. The more knowledge you have about your friend’s diagnosis and treatment, the more you can help meet their specific needs.
Be Ready For Hard Conversations
There have been so many breakthroughs in medical technology in recent years that many people often assume their friend with cancer will be ok. Fortunately, this is often the case. But what do you do when it isn’t? We heard from a terminal patient who needed to talk openly about her situation, but everyone around her was trying to get her to “think positive.” Sometimes your friend will need to discuss things that make you uncomfortable. Be ready to listen.
What To Do Instead off Saying “What Can I Do?”
If you have a close friend going through treatment, think outside the box. What is really important for your friend? One patient was too tired, and her hands were too fragile after chemo, to work in her beloved rose garden. Weeds overtook it and she was devastated she wasn’t able to fix it. She would have loved if someone would have done it but was never comfortable asking for such a specific favor. One woman who had a prophylactic mastectomy hated that she couldn’t raise her arms in order to wash her hair. So while she was recovering, her husband would wash her hair for her. Having that bit of comfort made her feel better about having limited mobility. Think about the non-cancer related things that are important to your friend and see if you can step in. Having a sense of normalcy is really important when your life has been turned upside down.
Remember the Family
Even when cancer patients are offered support, their families are often left out of the equation. Cancer is extremely hard for the people closest to the patient. They are often overwhelmed as caregivers and deserve their own system of support too. Be sure to check in on the spouses, partners, and children of the patient. Do they need a spa day? A moral support visit? Do they need a shoulder to cry on while their loved one is in chemo? It’s just as important to take care of a patient’s inner circle as it is the person in treatment.
Here are some specific items patients said they appreciated being sent-
-Adult coloring books and crayons (therapeutic activity during long treatments)
-Hard candies (for dry mouth during chemo)
-Lip balm (shea butter was a particular favorite)
-Aroma therapy oils
-Radiations skin care kit with lotions, aloe vera, and soft tanks
-Heart shaped mastectomy pillow
It’s wonderful to ask what you can do. Be sure to check in. But also feel free to be proactive. Send a care package or start a fundraiser. Arrange meal donations and ask if they are ready for a visit. And if you are the patient – feel free to be like the woman who created her own Amazon wish list. When people ask what they can do, tell them. Don’t be afraid to be specific. Chances are, if they asked, they really want to know, and will be only too happy to help.