7 Ways to Provide Support for Someone with Cancer

You’ve got­ten past the ini­tial shock and it’s start­ed to set in: Some­one you love has cancer. 

Once you have learned the basics, like the type of can­cer and how they plan to treat it, it’s nor­mal to still be filled with ques­tions — espe­cial­ly about what you can do to help. 

If you’re not quite sure how to start, here are 7 ways to sup­port a loved one with cancer. 

1. Be present.

This is one of the most sim­ple things you can do, but it’s still impact­ful. Your loved one may feel like they’re alone or wor­ry that rela­tion­ships will change because of changes in how they look or what activ­i­ties they can do, so they will appre­ci­ate know­ing that you’re there for them no mat­ter what. 

Sched­ule a time to talk or ask when it’s gen­er­al­ly most con­ve­nient to call. If you’re com­ing by for a vis­it, always give them a heads-up before show­ing up at their doorstep. And if they decide they don’t want to talk or have com­pa­ny, try not to be offend­ed — some­times, alone time is what they need most. 

2. Respect Boundaries.

Lis­ten atten­tive­ly when your loved one wants to dis­cuss their can­cer, treat­ment, or symp­toms. Equal­ly impor­tant is respect­ing their choice if they pre­fer not to talk about their ill­ness. Some patients feel over­whelmed by detailed ques­tions about doc­tors, stages, or treat­ments. While offer­ing sup­port, be cau­tious not to bur­den them with sug­ges­tions. Ini­ti­ate con­ver­sa­tions by ask­ing what they would like to talk about, or if they’re open to hear­ing about spe­cif­ic treat­ments. Adapt to their chang­ing needs as their can­cer jour­ney unfolds, acknowl­edg­ing that it may shift rapidly. 

It’s nat­ur­al for indi­vid­u­als to feel upset upon learn­ing about a loved one’s can­cer diag­no­sis. How­ev­er, it’s cru­cial to man­age your emo­tions around the patient, ensur­ing they don’t shoul­der the respon­si­bil­i­ty of han­dling your grief in addi­tion to their challenges. 

3. Be spe­cif­ic when you offer help. 

It’s not bad” to say, Any­thing you need, let me know.” But that can be a lit­tle over­whelm­ing. At the moment, it’s not always easy to pin­point that one thing they need — and when they do need some­thing in the future, they may feel uncom­fort­able get­ting back in touch to ask for a favor. 

Instead, offer to do some­thing more spe­cif­ic, such as:

  • Cook­ing dinner 
  • Doing their laundry 
  • Pick­ing up their kids from school 
  • Going to the gro­cery store 
  • Car­ing for their pet, even if it’s just clean­ing the cat’s lit­ter box while you’re already visiting 

It’s often hard for peo­ple with can­cer to ask for or accept help, but giv­ing them spe­cif­ic options might take a lit­tle pres­sure off and make it a bit eas­i­er.

4. Ask them what they want for dinner. 

Before drop­ping off a lasagna or cook­ie tray, ask them if there is some­thing spe­cif­ic they want — or don’t want. Their treat­ments may be caus­ing side effects like nau­sea or chang­ing their sense of taste or smell, so the foods they loved before might not seem quite so appe­tiz­ing anymore. 

If they don’t have a pref­er­ence, con­sid­er get­ting them a gift card for a meal deliv­ery ser­vice so they have a wide vari­ety of options and can get it when­ev­er they’re feel­ing up to eating. 

For ques­tions about can­cer diag­no­sis, treat­ment, and sup­port, reach out to our Inte­grat­ed Oncol­o­gy Pro­gram.

5. Help them main­tain a sense of normalcy. 

Whether it’s from the treat­ment, the emo­tions, or the can­cer itself, your loved one might not be able to do the same activ­i­ties right now. When­ev­er pos­si­ble, help them keep up with their nor­mal rou­tines. For example: 

  • If they love exer­cise but are too tired to go on their dai­ly runs, go on walks with them and keep up with their pace. 
  • If you used to go to the movies togeth­er every Fri­day night but now they’re avoid­ing going out, bring movie night to them. 
  • If they like to cook din­ner every night but find it too tir­ing, find out what they want to make. Chop up and pre­pare ingre­di­ents ahead of time so they can cut down on the time it takes to cook. Or, cook with them and give them the tasks they can do eas­i­ly while sitting.

No mat­ter the activ­i­ty, always be sure to bal­ance encour­ag­ing them with not push­ing them or mak­ing them feel guilty if they can’t or don’t want to do some­thing.

6. Get oth­ers involved.

Quick caveat: As fun as it can be to sur­prise some­one, make sure that your loved one has giv­en their full sup­port. They may want to keep their diag­no­sis pri­vate, or they may not want the extra attention. 

There are plen­ty of cre­ative ways to get oth­ers involved once you have your loved one’s bless­ing, and they range from being as sim­ple as hav­ing peo­ple send cards or orga­niz­ing a race to raise mon­ey for treat­ment. Look around online and in sup­port groups on social media, and you will see many ways in which com­mu­ni­ties have ral­lied behind the peo­ple they love. 

Make sure your loved one knows that they don’t just have you — they have a whole com­mu­ni­ty behind them. 

7. Don’t for­get about care­givers — and that includes yourself. 

Car­ing for a loved one with can­cer can become a full-time job, and care­givers often neglect their own men­tal and phys­i­cal health dur­ing that time. But when it comes to care­giv­ing, it’s a you can’t care for some­one else if you don’t care for your­self, first” sit­u­a­tion. Prac­tic­ing self-care and con­cen­trat­ing on your own health doesn’t just keep your health in check — it also ben­e­fits the per­son you’re car­ing for.

If you aren’t the pri­ma­ry care­giv­er, some ways you can help your loved one’s care­giv­er focus on their own needs and decrease their stress include: 

  • Plan for a long vis­it rather than a quick drop-in so that their care­giv­er gets more time off for their own care. 
  • If you’re bring­ing over food, remem­ber to pick up some for the care­giv­er, too. 
  • When com­ing over, bring your own snacks so that you don’t impose on the caregiver. 
  • Offer to run errands for the care­giv­er that they can’t do while car­ing for your loved one. 
  • Give emo­tion­al sup­port and show your appreciation. 
  • Remind them of the impor­tance of self-care if they express feel­ing guilty about tak­ing time for themselves. 

Watch­ing some­one you love go through can­cer treat­ment can take a toll on your health and well-being. If you’re strug­gling, remem­ber that you can always reach out to a behav­ioral health spe­cial­ist like a ther­a­pist or coun­selor. When your needs are met — whether you’re a care­giv­er, fam­i­ly mem­ber, or friend — you will be bet­ter equipped to give your loved one the care they need. 

Health Topics:

  • My goal is to provide quality, evidence-based cancer care in a compassionate manner. I strive to help my patients achieve cure when possible, comfort when not, and quality of life always. I believe in giving my patients all their options and working with them to come up with the best treatment plan for them individually.