Cancer: Four Practical Ways to be There When the Unthinkable Happens

What exactly can you do to make the cancer nightmare a little more manageable for your friends, coworkers or family members? Maybe you’ve already faced this dilemma. So, tell me, how did you fare? Did you know what to offer in terms of help?

Wouldn’t it be ideal if oncologists made an advice guide available the day we, as patients, get the dreaded news? As soon as we’re diagnosed, the doctor hands us a stack of pamphlets or, even better, a web address to send out to you, our friends and family, thereby making this awkward process a cinch. As newly diagnosed patients, do we even know what we need from you anyway? I’m sure that if we did, we’d immediately offer that advice to our support network, but as I recall, I was a complete blank after finding out. And if I’m truthful, probably for the duration of my illness.

“Survivors” and “lifers” report that it’s all too common to lose friendships during the trials of cancer–maybe it’s because our friends and family can’t handle it, feel powerless, or just don’t know how to react. And asking can feel awkward. In the midst of the cancer drama, we often assume the people who disappear from our lives aren’t our true friends. For the record, I’d like to state that I was in crisis mode and could barely focus on the minutes in front of me, much less try to understand the way others around me might have been coping. Hindsight is 20/20, and now that the fog has lifted, I realize that had I known what to ask for and then openly communicated it, perhaps the demise of some of my relationships could have been avoided. That advice guide sure would have come in handy.

There continues to be a lot of discussion going on in the cancer community about what helped patients the most during their cancer experiences and the kinds of help they wished they’d received. Recently, I posted a question on my Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders Facebook community asking what advice my followers would give to the general public. Here’s the result–real-life advice from breast cancer survivors.

Offer specific help.

According to Pam, a two year survivor, patients “never want to be a bother, so you have to overcome that to help. Don’t ask ‘what can I do?’ Don’t say, ‘If you need anything, call.’ Instead, offer to do specific things like, ‘Hey, can I bring you dinner tomorrow night? Can I take the kids for a couple of hours of fun? Can I clean your kitchen for you?’” I’ve heard this advice repeatedly from other women, too, and even I remember feeling awkward calling friends to collect the general “if you need anything” favors they’d promised. I’m sure they meant every word, but how would I even begin to approach the subject after weeks had passed and, in my mind, the favor had cooled?

Melissa P. agreed, adding, “Don’t call and ask. Just show up with food. I turned down all offers, but when someone showed up unannounced with food, I was always so thankful!” And just like meal delivery, errand running for the patient–and even the caregiver–can really benefit the family. Mary suggested chauffeuring a patient to appointments because, as someone who lived in a rural area, transportation was her biggest issue.

Supporting a friend with cancer

Bring over a meal.

After a diagnosis, the last thing anyone wants to worry about is cooking. And once surgery and treatment begin, all bets are off on making hot meals for the family every night. According to LouAnn, “I told friends that if they wanted to help, a meal would be the most appreciated. They asked what we did or didn’t like and coordinated with each other. One even called in a pizza to be delivered because she couldn’t bring a meal.” Melissa R. mentioned that, a food scheduling calendar coordinating delivery of meals from friends and family, is especially helpful. It’s become quite popular during treatment, keeping supporters from showing up on the same days with an abundance of food while other dates remain empty.

On the flip side, April added, “But don’t get offended when we say no to visits, meals, or help. I appreciated everything my friends, family and coworkers did for me, but sometimes it would get overwhelming. Just be there for us when we need you.”

Keep it real.

It’s okay if you can’t relate. Keep it real, instead. Candice, just recently having undergone reconstruction, offered, “Don’t say you understand because unless you’ve been through it, you don’t.” While that may sound harsh to the average ear, there is a grain of truth to it. While we appreciate the shoulder to cry on, most of us would rather hear, “I’m sorry. This sucks.” Because it does suck. And we know it.

Don’t focus on the cancer.

“I didn’t want people to change the way they treated me because I had cancer,” April explained. “I didn’t want (them) to feel uncomfortable around me or treat me like I was made of glass. Even though there were a lot of times I couldn’t do stuff because I was too sick and tired, I appreciated my friends asking me to still do things.” Like April, I found that a “cancer break” was much needed too, and when my own friends came by just to hang out, I was relieved. At last, a little normalcy during a period of my life that was anything but normal.

Obviously, there are many other ways to help someone facing cancer. These are just a few of the tips these fellow survivors would like to share with you. While these ladies offer some great advice, if you’ve previously found yourself in a situation where you didn’t know what to do–so you didn’t do anything–don’t beat yourself up about it. Cancer is a tough time for everyone, and it requires a lot of energy and effort on all parties. We understand that. There’s no way that any of us can handle it perfectly.


2 replies
  1. Pam Brumfield-Uriarte
    Pam Brumfield-Uriarte says:

    All of it is great advice, and so very true. I especially appreciate the reminder to avoid telling us you understand unless you have been through it yourself. It is true, you really don’t understand. There is no way you could. Sympathy can be just as valuable as empathy, it shows you care. Recognizing that this sucks is validation enough, you don’t have to “get it” for us to know you care. If you don’t know what to say, say that. It is honest and real. The biggest thing, I think, is to just listen. Be there.

    • Victorious Val
      Victorious Val says:

      Pam, your comment is much appreciated and valued–both her and on the Crusader page from which I pulled these gems of advice. Thank you for being involved in breast cancer dialogues that really add to the community. Much love to you.


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