After learning that a friend, colleague, or neighbor has cancer, you may wonder what you should do. You might want to help in some way or think about stopping by for a visit or sending a gift. Or maybe you simply feel at a loss for what to do or what to say.
Ask before you visit.
This is true whether you’re visiting someone at home or in the hospital. “Being sick is unpredictable,” says Cammarata. “Give your friend permission to say no to a visit, and be flexible and understanding that someone who is sick may call and cancel at the last minute.” If you reach out but your friend doesn’t return your phone call or email, don’t take it personally.
If you do visit, Blackler recommends making sure you don’t overstay your welcome — you don’t want your friend to feel obligated to entertain you. If you’re not sure how long to stay, she says, just ask: “I can stay longer. Or do you want me to leave and come back another time?”
Set up a phone team.
Many people with cancer find that keeping friends and family updated on their latest status can be taxing at times. Cammarata recommends setting up a phone team, so that only one person in your circle of friends reaches out and then provides updates to the rest of the group. This person can also let everyone else know if the mutual friend wants more phone calls or would prefer time to be alone.
Offer to help with daily tasks.
It may be difficult for your friend to ask for help, but Cammarata and Blackler say that some of the most beneficial things you can do are to offer to assist with everyday errands, like grocery shopping, babysitting, picking the kids up from school, or doing laundry. Cammarata suggests making a list of tasks you’re willing to do and asking your friend where you can help.
If you’re going out to the store for your own family, give your friend a call and see if there’s anything else you can pick up, Blackler says.
“The most meaningful and helpful things are little…like listening,” notes Cammarata. If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, it’s fine to say that too.
“It’s OK to say you’re feeling awkward,” says Blackler. “It’s OK to say, ‘This is so hard. I don’t know what to say.’” It’s a way to acknowledge the situation rather than pretend it’s not happening.
Take your cues from your friend.
Similarly, look to your friend for cues on what to discuss. “Sometimes patients express frustration because their friends don’t want to talk about the cancer. People get frustrated because it’s a big part of their life,” Blackler says. However, others find that talking about something other than cancer and treatment is a nice reprieve.
If you’re not sure, Blackler suggests saying something like, “Do you want to talk about it? If so, I’m here. If you don’t, let’s get lunch and talk about the gossip in the neighborhood.”
Remember that everyone’s illness is different.
Even if the type of cancer your friend has is the same as that of someone else you know, keep in mind that everyone’s symptoms and disease are unique. While you may want to reach into your own life to find a common link, Cammarata recommends avoiding such comparisons.
“Don’t say, ‘My friend was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, too, and they’re doing great,’” she says. It’s not helpful to compare illnesses.
Reconsider gifts of food.
Perhaps you’ve thought about baking a casserole, soup, or another meal. But keep in mind that your friend may need to stick to a special diet during treatment, have symptoms like nausea and vomiting, or be more vulnerable to infections, says Cammarata. Depending on the situation, it may be better to stay away from giving food.
Give thoughtful gifts.
Giving a gift can be tricky for several reasons. Flowers may not be appropriate for someone whose immune system is weak. Gifts with a strong perfume or smell can be overwhelming for someone with cancer. But books, magazines, movies, or puzzles may be welcome distractions during chemotherapy.
Blackler recalls a patient who received a gift certificate for a home cleaning service. Redeeming that gift certificate helped pick up the slack at home and wasn’t as uncomfortable as having a friend come in to clean, she says.
Cammarata remembers one particularly thoughtful gift given by a group of friends. Each person got a page and filled it with attributes that they admired about the patient, pictures, inspirational quotes, and funny memories. “I thought that was such a sweet idea,” she says.
Support caregivers and other family members too.
“People are so focused on the patients and how they’re doing that they forget to ask caregivers how they’re doing,” Blackler says. “Caregivers are stressed out.” They’re trying to juggle their existing roles and take over new responsibilities that the person who’s sick used to do.
You can offer to help by babysitting the kids for a night or driving them to soccer practice. Or perhaps helping out just means sitting in the hospital room while the caregiver steps out for a cup of coffee.
Continue to offer support after the initial diagnosis.
“It’s not always at the beginning of the illness that patients need support. They need support along the entire continuum,” says Cammarata. Offers of help often “flood in at the beginning of the diagnosis and then it begins to trickle,” she adds. “It’s important to remember that the help is not just needed when they’re first diagnosed or in the hospital.”
If you’re part of a church group or a similar organization, your group might want to consider taking turns helping out so that the support is spread out. Blackler also advises to offer to help more than once — but not too frequently. Ask again in a week or two.
Most importantly, keep the person in mind throughout it all. Think about his or her personality and comfort level, likes and dislikes, and needs.
“It’s about helping without overwhelming,” Blackler says. “People can do really amazing things that touch the lives of patients.”
Are you living with cancer, a survivor, or a caregiver? What advice do you wish had been shared with your community of friends during your experience? What was the most helpful thing that someone did for you or a loved one during cancer treatment? Share with us in the comments section below.