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What to do

(and not do) when someone you know is diagnosed with cancer

I get a lot of calls from people seeking advice regarding what to do when someone they care about is diagnosed with cancer. Every journey is individual to the person and the type of cancer, so it can be challenging to give direction; but social support had such a huge positive impact for me that I encourage you to give some thought to what your patient might want or need from you.

Here is what I found most helpful:

 

Offers of Specific Help

Asking for help does not come naturally to most of us, even when we so desperately needed it. And following up on an offer to help was often difficult for me—even when I knew people’s offers to help were 100% genuine. The truth is, unless you are very close to the patient, offering to do “anything to help” is unlikely to elicit a call. I was most appreciative when people were specific about what they thought they could do and why:

  • “I’m running to the supermarket/drug store/bakery/mall – do you need anything?” 

  • “I’d be happy to mow your lawn any time I mow mine.” 

  • “I’m always looking for an excuse to make my famous lasagna – let me know when your freezer has room for one…or three.”

  • “Which side effects are really bugging you right now? Have you found anything that seems to help? Is there any research I could do for you?”

  • And if you’re really stuck for ideas, you can try something like, “What are you finding more difficult than you may have anticipated?”

Support for my family

It was tough for me to see how much Per and the kids took on (or missed out on) during my colon cancer treatment. We knew he’d need to pick up most of my household responsibilities but didn’t realize how much time it would take to also deal with prescriptions, appointments, IVs, dressings, etc. This left very little energy for anything else; so I was always so appreciative when someone offered to take the kids for an active play date to keep them moving, or checked to see if Per wanted to go out for a coffee or to a movie. When my friends offered to set up a MealTrain, I almost declined; but it turned out to be a major sanity saver to maintain family dinners – and still have the energy to connect during them. I particularly appreciated a handful of cooking-confident friends who requested our family favorite recipes and offered to make familiar options.

 

Snacks and single portions

If you know maintaining weight is a key concern, any visit becomes an opportunity to get in some calories: mention that you’re planning to stop by a local coffee shop or juice bar and take your patient’s order! I really liked nutritionally dense, protein-rich options that could be frozen in small portions: granola bars, muffins, or cookies filled with oatmeal, fruit and nuts; cheese gougeres that could be eaten one or two at a time; small cups of frozen mashed potatoes; and large cubes of soups (I had the easiest time with those with sweeter profiles and always appreciated hidden protein – my brother-in-law's carrot ginger pecan soup was a favorite).

 

Gift cards

I was very aware that we were in better financial shape than many families, so I didn’t feel comfortable when friends wanted to start a GoFundMe for us; but I was surprised how much we appreciated gift cards, especially those that could be used for food. Beyond lack of energy to prepare food, my appetite was oddly specific when it struck – gift cards made it a lot easier to order just a few bites of something. If you’re too far away to cook (or prefer to avoid the kitchen), this is a great option.

 

Things that helped other cancer patients

Some of my favorite gifts came from fellow sufferers: moisturizing socks, ginger chews, Weleda Skin Food, a cool fanny pack to hold my post-surgical drains, even a session with a reiki practitioner may have been less obvious options, but all became tools in my coping toolbox. One of Per’s coworkers gave me a huge photo of our family (plus adhesive!) to hang in my hospital room during my surgeries (and unexpected visits) which both cheered me and gave my support team at the hospital an immediate opportunity for connection. If your patient is on an EGFR inhibitor like Vectibix or Erbitux that causes rash (far and away the most hellish side effect with which I had to deal), let me be the first to recommend La Mer; I will be forever grateful to the friend who gave me her samples and my extended family who worked together to be sure I always had some during the worst of treatment. 

 

“No response required” texts

When someone sent a note to say, “I’ve been thinking of you, don’t feel the need to respond,” I usually still did. But sometimes I just did not have the energy, and I was always grateful when people I didn’t know quite as well removed the burden of a response.

 

“How are you doing today?”

This is low-pressure ask which relieves the cancer patient from having to do more than reveal if today is a good or bad day (and if they prefer, to side-step the topic of health altogether) but opens the door for him or her to share significantly more if they are at a point where they want or need to do so.

This is what I found less helpful:

Diet advice 

For me, loss of appetite and the ensuing struggle to eat took a significant emotional toll; the gap between what I felt like I should and could eat, and my inability to maintain my weight created frustration and guilt. Imagine having a terrible hangover that has lasted for weeks; you know you need to eat today, because you haven’t eaten the last few days, you’re already down three pounds since your last weigh in, and you just threw up the two bites of egg sandwich you were able to choke down. This is precisely when a cab driver wants to tell you that you need to be on a high alkaline diet, because his friend miraculously cured himself with celery and alfalfa. (Most miraculous cancer-curing advice falls into this same category, by the way.)

 

“You’re so brave”

I’ve spoken with many cancer patients about this, and we all agree that it is difficult to hear, because it’s not how we feel. A cancer diagnosis is not an active choice; and choosing to treat one’s cancer doesn’t feel like much of one either. There is so much fear tied up in a diagnosis that hearing this can make a patient feel like a fraud. I would also advise tuning into a patient’s own language before proclaiming them, “such a warrior!” While many patients frame their journey as a fight, I did not; and I harbor a secret hope that my journey might inspire others who might be more comfortable with a less aggressive approach where we don't equate surviving and winning – or dying with losing.

 

Toxic positivity

“You’ll get through this” (Alt: “You’ll get through this, because you are so positive”) – nobody knows, not even the patient; and you don’t know where on the emotional roller coaster a patient is when you make this pronouncement, so there is a very real risk that on hearing this, your patient may mentally start to “argue” with you even as he or she is responding with “Oh, thanks for saying that.” Neither of you want this – and it shuts down the possibility of engaging in what may be a much-needed conversation about the reality of the situation and the support your patient needs.