On December 17, 2013 I went to the ER for what I presumed was walking pneumonia (as a physician, I’m good at misdiagnosing myself) only to find out I had a giant tumor in my chest that could have killed me within weeks. Immediately I was admitted to the hospital and started on chemotherapy for Stage IV Acute Lymphoblastic T-Cell Lymphoma.
Over the following months I experienced a whirlwind of physical and emotional changes. The treatment became increasingly arduous, and I lost the ability to perform even simple functions, including working, driving, preparing food, and running errands. At 31 years old, I thought anyone taking away my independence would be prying it from my cold, dead hands. Unfortunately, that was almost the case.
Thankfully, I had a community of supporters — family, coworkers, friends — who stepped up and took care of me when I needed it most.
When a person first gets a cancer diagnosis, they’re often so overwhelmed they have no idea how to ask for help or what to ask for — but they sure need it. If you have a friend or family member with cancer you want to help, don’t make the mistake of making a vague, questionably-sincere offer “Well, call me when you need me!” (they won’t).
Instead, make your friend’s life easier by anticipating his or her needs and giving tangible, much-needed support. Here is a list of the top favors people did for me that made my day (and made my life much easier!) after my cancer diagnosis.
1. Deliver a meal. Make sure to ask in advance if they have any dietary restrictions or are following any guidelines. Stay for a visit, or just drop off the food if they’re not up for it (a cooler left outside the front door is perfect for this).
2. Deliver a Tupperware of several pre-made meals your friend can heat up as needed. Use Tupperware you don’t need returned.
3. Send a quick email, text, or message saying you’re thinking of them.
4. Add “No need to respond” to the end of your message — they’ll appreciate hearing from you without feeling the need to do anything in return.
5. Add “Feel free to take me up on this offer whenever” when you offer help — they’ll know the offer will still be sincere whenever they need it (in a week, a month, a year).
6. Set a calendar alert reminding you to check in with a quick hello or offer of help on a regular basis.
7. Send a text the next time you’re at the grocery store and ask if they’d like you to pick anything up.
8. Send a text the next time you’re at the drugstore to see if they need any toiletries.
9. Send a housekeeper to clean up their place. Take care of the details so they just need to be there to open the door.
10. Send a text the next time you’re at the pharmacy to see if they need any prescriptions picked up.
11. Send a mobile masseuse for a gift massage.
12. Offer to take them out for a coffee or lunch date.
13. Offer to visit. Check that they’re feeling up for it.
14. Offer to take them out to a movie. If they’re too tired, come by with a rental.
15. Offer a ride to chemo and keep them company during the treatment. Even better, commit to giving a ride on a regular basis throughout their treatments.
16. Let them know you’re “on call” for emergencies. Mean it.
17. Send a flower delivery. However, make sure the person isn’t on neutropenic precautions first; fresh flowers can be an infection risk for cancer patients with weakened immune systems. Sadly, I had to give away the many wonderful flower deliveries I got right after my diagnosis. Or, consider silk flowers (no worries about causing infection, and they last longer).
18. Order take-out and have it delivered. Ask if they have a favorite restaurant. If they seem too overwhelmed to make any decisions, just get a sense of their dietary preferences and pick out a nice meal to send.
19. Gift a magazine or newspaper subscription.
20. Gift a good book.
21. Tell them you love and care about them. Even if they don’t have the energy to respond, your message means a lot.
22. For your lady cancer friend, take her out to a nice beauty treatment. Think: manicure/pedicure, facial, makeup application, etc. It may be the first time she’s splurged on her appearance in a while.
23. Send a card. Make sure it’s legible — cancer eyes are tired eyes 🙂
24. Gift an Uber or Lyft gift certificate if you’re not available to offer a ride. I’m a huge fan of Uber.
25. If you’re a close friend or family member to the cancer patient, offer to be a “point person” where you screen and accept/decline others’ visit and help offers. Right after a diagnosis there are many who want to help and visit and call, but the person with cancer is probably extremely overwhelmed at this time and may prefer some space.
26. Understand that a cancer patient is likely too overwhelmed to ask what they need; take the initiative by offering specifics, instead of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
27. Remember to still be there a few months after the diagnosis, when it’s not so new anymore. The fanfare will have died down, but your friend will still be struggling and needing logistical and emotional help.
28. Offer to be the “communication person” that updates others about your friend’s state of health; it can get difficult to have to share the details over and over.
29. On that note, when you check in, don’t always ask for all the details about the current state of your friend’s health.
30. Does your friend have a dog? Offer to come by and take them for a walk or to the groomers.
31. Does your friend have kids? Offer to babysit, do a school pick-up, or have them over for a sleepover.
32. Say, “Give me a task.” Maybe it will be laundry, or an errand, or picking up groceries. Be in and out. No socializing needed.
33. Does your friend have a garden? Offer to come by and do some watering and care. Even better, commit to taking over the watering regularly.
34. Text or email a silly joke or photo.
￼￼￼￼35. Offer to help your friend sift through and respond to emails; after a cancer diagnosis the number of emails can be overwhelming and important ones can get lost in the shuffle.
37. If you can, and your friend feels comfortable accepting it, give some cash — between hospital bills and the loss of income if one can’t work, cancer can be a huge financial hit.
38. Donate money to cover paid-time-off hours for the patient or close family members (some employers allow this).
39. Buy a monthly parking pass for family members when the patient has a prolonged hospitalization — hospital parking gets expensive!
40. Gift a hat, wig, or scarf if your friend will lose her hair with treatment.
41. Gift a super comfy blanket. This was one of my favorite and most-used gifts (good for couch lounging or trips to chemo).
42. Just listen. Don’t give advice, don’t try to be cheery — just listen and let your buddy talk.
43. Ask what they need from you most right now… and then do it.
44. Cancer isn’t contagious — give your friend a hug to let them know you’re on their side.
Elana Miller, MD is a psychiatrist passionate about integrating Eastern Wisdom with Western medicine to help people live happier and fuller lives. She writes at her blogZen Psychiatry. To hear more about her cancer journey and get more tips for how to deal with a cancer diagnosis, download her free Cancer Quick-Start Guide here.
Photo by author, Elana Miller MD