How to Help a Cancer Patient, Or Any Other Chronically Ill Person

Practical tips on how to help a sick friend.
PUBLISHED August 03, 2015
Susan F was unwillingly thrust into the world of metastatic breast cancer after a routine mammogram in 2012. She uses her powers of persuasion, knowledge and writing for good in hopes of helping others similarly affected. She is a patient advocate, volunteering with METAvivor (metavivor.org), a volunteer organization raising funds for research in metastatic breast cancer.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, people kept asking me how they could help. Frankly, I was so overwhelmed, I had no idea what to tell them. But as time went on, and I was increasingly disabled by the chemo, I began to work hard to think of concrete things people could do to help me get through the daily living of being treated for cancer. I thought I'd share some of these thoughts with you all for the time you might be the potential helper looking in, wondering what to do.

What to Say to a Cancer Patient 
 
But first, I want to talk about what to say to a cancer patient. I know that talking to someone who is in pain is a scary event. I didn't know what to say when I dealt with very sick or grieving people, until I became one of those very sick and grieving people. Many well-meaning folks have spouted out the first thought that came into their heads, leading to my hearing countless stories of people dying of cancer and other statements I just didn't want or need to hear while dealing with the terror of my own cancer.  Here are the two best things to stay to someone with any illness or grief:

1) I am so, so sorry.
2) What can I do to help?

Do at least say I am sorry, and maybe follow that up with an offer to help. But after that, do not say another word, unless it's another version of I'm sorry or how can I help. Unless you yourself have had cancer, do not give advice, do not offer cures you've heard about, and do not tell the person about the horrible cancer death you were either part of or heard about. Just say, "I am so, so sorry" and/or "What can I do to help?"  If you know of someone who has survived the same thing, do tell that story. But don't follow that up with, "... and then a couple years later she died." Somebody actually said that to me. It didn't help.

For even better advice on what to say or not say to a cancer patient and their loved ones, Susan Silk wrote a great op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times called "How not to say the wrong thing."

How to Help a Cancer Patient
 
Now on to the how-to-help topic. Cancer treatment, or any treatment for a chronic illness, is a humbling and disabling experience. When it got bad, I couldn't even take out my own garbage, much less climb up my steps. Grocery shopping was impossible. Cooking? Forget about it. So here is a list of concrete actions you can do to help someone going through treatment for cancer. I am single, so my list varies from the list someone with children would have, so I've added a few extra items for the folks with kids and other responsibilities.

Helping Action List

Food
  • Pick up some groceries, even a box of cereal and a gallon of milk helps;
  • Drop off pre-cooked, individually packaged, freezable meals.
Household Chores
  • Offer basic house cleaning, even just once. Living in squalor is one of the less pleasant side effects of being treated for cancer;
  • Offer to do basic chores such as take out the garbage, maybe as you are leaving the house from a visit. Or offer to help with gardening, change the bedding, do a quick clean of the bathroom. Even a load of laundry would be greatly appreciated.
Children and Pets

I do not have children but do have dogs. Luckily, I have a fenced backyard, so could just open the door and let the dogs out to do their business. But there were other parts of dog ownership that became challenging as I went through treatment.

For Pets
  • If the patient does not have a fenced-in yard, offer to add their dog to your own daily dog walks. Or maybe even offer to have the dog over as your guest while the patient goes through the worst of it. It sucks to miss your furry friend, but sometimes it just gets so bad it's impossible to do more than care for yourself;
  • If the patient has a fenced in yard, offer to come over to pick up the weekly dog poop;
  • Offer to help the patient get their dog to the vet, if that's needed;
  • Pick up dog food or other supplies for the patient. Thirty pounds of dog food was not happening in my world during treatment.
As I mentioned, basic tasks become very difficult while going through chemo.

For Children
  • Offer to take the kids one day on the weekend or during a weeknight evening, just to give the patient a break;
  • If the child is on the way during your own drive to your child's school, offer to add the patient's child to your drive to school as well;
  • Same concept with appointments. If the patient's child needs to see a doctor, offer to take that child to the doctor for the patient. 
While in my own treatment, I read about women in chemo, taking care of children, and wondered how the heck they did it. I was lucky. I only had dogs, and, frankly they are old enough that sleeping and chilling with me seemed fine with them. I called it "striking the pose." When I came home, we all struck the pose of sleeping. But children? They don't like that laying around thing all the time.
 
Doctor Appointments, Test and Treatments
  • Give a patient a ride to an appointment;
  • Become a treatment or chemo companion and sit with the patient during those events;
  • Go into the doctors exam room with the patient. It sucks to be poked and prodded, and a little company goes a long way. Plus, when I saw doctors, I often felt overwhelmed, so the second set of ears was invaluable. My friend Jo Ann even brought along a recorder and would record each appointment. Again, doing this even just once for the patient makes a world of difference.
Just a Little Human Companionship
 
Now for the less chore-oriented, but very important subject of human compananionship and encouragement.  My chemo went on for five solid months, with Taxol treatments every week. As I became more disabled, I was less and less able to get out of the house. This only added to my increasing depression. Here are a few things you can do to help keep a cancer patient's spirits up:
  • Send a greeting card, maybe even once a week. Send it as an e-card or regular U.S. mail. Make it funny. Make it heartfelt. Just send it. Knowing that someone remembers me when I'm trapped at home is a big deal;
  • Offer to come over and just sit with your friend. My wonderful friend Lisa got to the point where she would come over every Wednesday night. She would pick up food on the way over, and we would just eat and watch TV. That once-a-week company was a lifeline for me;
  • Drop off or send something sweet or silly. My friend Ann sent me a few books and some lovely cleaning cloths for sensitive skin. Doesn't matter what it is, send it or bring it by. Cancer sucks so bad that even the smallest gesture becomes enormous;
  • Text, call, or email to say, "How are you doing?" Maybe even do this once a week or even every few weeks. The patient may not be able to say more than a few words, but the checking in matters. A friend of mine, who also has bad things happening in her life, did not check in with me. I didn't expect daily check-ins, but at least every once in a while would have told me she cared. I checked with her a few times, and when she didn't reciprocate, I stopped. The people who did check in with me, they are my angels.
Super Angel Friend Level 

And if you really, really want to go the whole nine yards (aka the Super Angel Friend level), help the patient figure out what she or he needs, and coordinate people in meeting those needs. There is a wonderful website called Lotsa Helping Hands created by folks who went through just this situation. The site allows you to set up a caring community for a patient, and coordinate volunteers and requests. Being sick is a daunting experience, and I know I couldn't think straight most of the time. Helping a patient think and coordinate help is the greatest love of all.

So there you go. Basic ideas for how to help someone who is ill. If you have any more ideas, please do add them to the comments below. It takes a village to raise a patient, and it takes a bunch of minds to figure out how best to help one. I know I had my own village of friends and family who helped me, and I cannot begin to repay them. But I do know they all get to go straight to Heaven.
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