Since I got diagnosed with cancer, the most common thing I have heard from people has been, “Please let me me know if you need anything.” or “Let me know if I can help you in any way.”
The truth is, in the beginning, I had no idea what I needed or how someone could help. You just don’t until you get into the throws of it and see what you really need. Now that I’m almost done with this process I can finally lend some insight into how to help someone with cancer, or any kind of disease, chronic illness, surgery, etc. In this case, I will focus a little more on cancer since it’s a longer ongoing process, but you can modify most of this for different illnesses as needed. And as always, I’m here to answer any questions as I’ve been through chronic illness, surgery, and now, cancer.
How you can help:
Here are some ways to help that may not immediately come to mind. Most people focus on providing food, which is always great, but there are a lot of other things you can provide and offer that are a great help to someone in need medically.
- Let’s start with meals. Everyone always defaults to food in a time of need because our biggest point of survival is nutrition. Plus, it’s the easiest way to help, especially because no one has the energy to cook when they’re sick and don’t always have someone to come cook for them. I am fortunate enough to have fantastic coworkers which started an online group on a website called Meal Train. You can create an account for a particular person in need and send it out to everyone. From there, people can pick a particular day to sign up to bring by a meal for said person in need. You can include information about allergies, address locations, contact info, etc. Additionally, the person in need can be included so they can be aware of who is bringing what and when so they can be prepared.
A few things to note about bringing food for someone in need:
- Cooking not your thing but you still want to provide food? That’s totally OK. I had a good friend stop by on a few occasions with bags of groceries. He bought a wide variety of things like pasta, fruits, frozen meals, drinks, etc. This was helpful on my good days when I had enough energy to cook and it allowed me to have food in the house that I wasn’t on a time line to eat to avoid it going bad. This is just as helpful because some people will also have families or spouses to cook and provide for and not having to grocery shop when you’re taking care of someone is a great load off their shoulders
- Don’t hesitate to bring over uncooked meals that can be frozen. A lot of times, people brought food back to back, day after day, and I had a lot of meals and couldn’t eat them fast enough. Try to make something that can be frozen and reheated, or even something that is uncooked and can be tossed in the oven when they’re ready to eat it. This helps stretch out the meals and make them last longer.
- Focus on meals high in protein. People going through chemo need extra protein to combat the effects of the chemo so anything high in protein is extremely helpful.
- Make sure to ask what someone can and cannot eat. There were times my numbers got so low I had weird restrictions like no raw fruits and veggies. I also couldn’t eat anything but soft foods and liquids for a while. Especially if someone has had any kind of surgery, be aware of their dietary restrictions first and foremost. The last thing you want is wasted food.
- You can also provide gift cards to the grocery store or restaurants. A lovely coworker of mind gave me a gift card to a favorite restaurant of mine for when I had a “good day” and it was nice to get out of the house for a bit and enjoy a nice dinner out. You can also order in take out as a treat. Sometimes you don’t get the opportunity to be out a lot so little things like that help a lot with your morale.
- Don’t be offended if someone doesn’t feel up to seeing you. Be ready to just drop off a meal at the front door in a bag or cooler and leave. Sometimes it’s a lot of energy to feel presentable and you just don’t wanna greet someone in your pajamas, without a bra, looking like you’ve been up all night, and feeling like crap. Just sayin’.
2. Gas Gift Cards. You’d be surprised the amount of time you spend driving back and forth to doctors and hospitals when you have cancer, or any kind of illness or surgery. During the first few months of treatment I had to drive back and forth to Evanston Hospital, 30-45 minutes each way, almost every day every other week. During a chemo week I have to be at the hospital every day, and every other week I am there 2-3 times a week for blood draws, not including if I need a blood transfusion, doctor’s appointment, or other procedure done last minute. You spend a crazy amount of money on gas driving all over the place so providing someone with a gift card to a gas station or a visa gift card to help cover those costs is a HUGE help, one that most people don’t ever think about needing until they see how often they’re filling their tank. Same goes for taxi, Uber, or Lyft gift cards.
3. Offer a ride. Some days I was too tired or too dizzy to drive myself places. Not to mention, there was always some appointment to be going to. It’s helpful to have a few people you can rely on for a ride to the doctor/hospital. I’m fortunate to have my mother and girlfriend around and flexible enough to often get me to where I need to go but not everyone has that. Most of the time a family member, spouse, etc has to be at work, take care of kids, etc. and can’t always be at every appointment. Offer to be a ride for someone if they need it. Will you always be available? No. But one time you might be and that is a big help.
4. Offer your company. You spend a lot of time in treatment, maintenance visits, or just laying around the house out of exhaustion. Offer to sit with someone during chemo, bring a movie over, watch TV, etc. Sometimes they’ll appreciate it and sometimes they won’t want anyone around. But you spend so much time in the house and not being social like usual, that having someone come hang out is a nice treat. Be ok with just coming over to watch a movie or TV. Sometimes that person won’t have the energy to do much more than that but just having someone do it with them is a welcome change. It’s nice to know someone wants to spend that time with you.
5. Offer to be a point person. If you are a close family member, friend, partner, spouse, sibling- offer to be a point of contact for all the other people who want to know what’s going on. Often someone who is sick or going through treatment is too tired to keep up with all the texts, emails, etc. of everyone asking for updates and “how are you doing’s”. It can get difficult to have to share the details over and over and over. With their permission, I gave people the cell phone number of my mom, girlfriend, and sister since they were around all the time and could provide updates.
6. Don’t be offended when someone doesn’t respond. In addition to checking in with a family member on your friend’s progress, don’t be offended if they don’t respond to you for days, or at all. Sometimes it’s a lot of effort to text which sounds silly but is true. Send a text letting them know you’re thinking about them, there if you need them, and are on hand for any emergencies or things they may need (only if you can and are willing and mean it). Adding a “no need to respond” at the end of a text, email, or Facebook message is a huge weight off so the person doesn’t feel the need to get back to you right away, if at all. Know that they DO see it and appreciate it but sometimes just can’t expend the energy to get back to you right now.
7. Gift a good book or magazine subscription. With all the time spent at home, in treatment, waiting in doctors offices, reading material is a great gift. Find a magazine subscription that plays to their interests, send over a few books, etc. You can have stuff shipped straight from amazon if you’re far away or can’t get over to their house. You don’t even need to spend money, bring over some of your already read books and magazines. Any material is good and appreciated.
8. Offer specifics. Most of the time, someone who is newly diagnosed is really overwhelmed and has no idea what they need so they don’t know how to ask for it. Also, like myself, someone is often new at this and has a hard time asking for help. Instead of saying “let me know if you need anything” offer specific ways to help. It’s easier to say yes to something instead of coming up with something on your own. Another option you can offer is to say “Give me a task.” This can be anything from picking up a prescription or doing a load of laundry. Shoot your friend a text when you’re at the grocery store or drugstore and see if they need anything while you’re there. I had a friend who offered to come by and push around a vacuum. Sometimes even just saying you’re going to do something, instead of offering and waiting for them to say yes, can be helpful.
9. Send over a cleaning person. No energy means you don’t have any motivation to clean and often family members are too focused on your needs to focus on getting the house cleaned. Send over someone from a cleaning service to help out if you have some extra cash. Make the arrangements so all they have to do is open the door. Often enough these days you can find a good deal on Groupon so you don’t need to spend a lot to help.
10. Don’t ask about the state of your friend’s health every single day/time you talk/etc. When you check in, don’t always ask for all the details of your friend’s current state of health/condition/procedures/etc. Let them offer if they want but don’t make a point of asking every day. Sometimes checking in every single day with the same “How are you?” text can be less than effective. Most times I wanted to respond “shitty, what else is new. nothing has changed” Not because I wanted to be rude or bitchy but because it was the truth. It may seem like it’s helping but some people don’t want their illness consuming every conversation, I didn’t and I found myself getting slightly annoyed talking about it every single day. You are missing out on a lot of things when you’re home sick so often, especially if you’re not working for a while, and you want to feel normal. You don’t want to feel like all you are is a sick person/cancer patient/etc. I want to hear about your day, your life, funny things going on, the world, current events. Comment on things, text me about anything, talk to me, send me funny stuff. Don’t just text me every day to see how I am. That may seem like the appropriate and kind thing to do but sometimes it can just make someone feel worse as it’s a constant reminder that they’re sick and not out there living a normal life like everyone else.
11. Offer to take care of a pet. I live on the second floor of a condo building with no elevator. With the extreme fatigue I get from chemo, getting up and down the stairs to walk my dog is a real effort. If I didn’t have my mom or girlfriend to take him out most of the time, it would have been very difficult. Not to mention, he’s a small dog. Some people have much bigger animals that can pull on their leash, run off, etc. That can be very hard on someone with extreme fatigue, muscle or bone pain, or who knows what else. Offer to come walk a dog, take care of a pet, even take them for a day or two to get some attention and play time if you’re capable. Pets don’t get a lot of attention when the focus is on the patient so a little TLC for your loving furry friend can be a great help that is often overlooked.
12. Offer to take care of the kids. Does your friend have children? This is another area you can greatly help if you’re able. A lot of focus on the needs of a patient means the kids may need a little extra TLC too. Offer to take them out to the park, dinner, or take them for a sleepover if you’re able. A little break for the parents is a huge help and weight off their shoulders and the kids get some attention as well as time away from seeing a parent suffer.
13. Donate money or start a Go Fund Me campaign. I hesitated to put this on there because I’m the kind of person that wouldn’t feel comfortable accepting this kind of help even though I have been out of work for five months with no disability pay. I’m just too proud. However, I am also fortunate enough to have great insurance that has covered almost all my medical care. Some people don’t have that luxury, and these days, good health insurance really does seem like a luxury. That being said, between medical bills, prescriptions, additional needs, child care, gas money, not working, etc. bills can pile up very quickly. If your friend will allow it and feels comfortable, you can donate some cash to help. If you can’t afford to do that you can start a campaign on Gofundme and share it to get other people to help donate to assist your friend. Make sure to check with them first before doing this because like I said, some people are VERY uncomfortable with this and money is a very touchy subject.
14. Be careful about sending things like flowers. It seems like the thing to do when someone is sick, and often its a great blessing. But for someone going through chemo, a lot of times our white blood cell count drops to almost nothing and fresh flowers can be dangerous for us during that time (which is called neutropenia). Send a fake flower arrangement to be safe if you want it to be a surprise. Same goes with fruit baskets and fruit arrangements like Edible Arrangements. With raw foods like that we can’t be sure they are cleaned well enough or who’s been in contact with it so it can bring along germs that can be very dangerous for someone with little to no white blood cells to fight it off. Additionally, gifting things like manicures/pedicures/facials/ etc. to your lady friend can be hard because there are a lot of germs floating around in this situations so often we can’t take advantage of it except during certain times when our numbers are good so check first before gifting more expensive items like that.
15. Remember to still be there a few months after the diagnosis. In the beginning everyone is shocked. They all want to be there, they all want to help, and often check in every single day for the first few weeks/months. After all that has died down, most people often forget that you’re still going through the struggle every single day, not to mention your family members are struggling with you. Make sure to still be around after all the fanfare and initial shock has died down.
16. Offer to help/be there for family members/spouses/etc. It goes without saying that any kind of illness takes a toll on a person but often times people forget that the family members/spouse/etc that are closest to the patient are stressed and struggling as well. They’re playing nurse all the time, running to appointments, cooking, cleaning, picking up the slack everywhere, and on top of all that they are stressed and worried about the well being of their loved one. Offer them some help too. Take them to lunch or coffee, take on a task to help them out, gift them something for themselves to help relieve the stress or just put a smile on their face. They are often forgotten in this process and people don’t realize the level of stress they’re dealing with so don’t forget to include them in your efforts to help.
So you want to send a care package?
Care packages are the best. I love them in any form and I LOVE to send them to people. They’re a great way to help someone you love when you don’t live nearby, or even if you do but you want to get creative. Sending a cancer care package is a wonderful way to help, a wonderful gift, and truly such a kind and fun gesture. Here are some things that have been really helpful during both my good and bad weeks of treatment. These are specific to cancer patients but can be modified for most chronic illnesses, surgery patients, etc.
- Cough drops– Chemo causes MAJOR dry mouth and often mouth sores. Cough drops are my savior during this time. I’m usually eating them like candy. Sometimes cough drops with menthol can irritate a sensitive mouth but menthol can also help with the chronic stuffiness caused by some chemo drugs. Throw in a bag of each to be safe. Avoid citrus cough drops. You can also go for Biotene cough drops or Luden’s Moisture Drops which are made specifically for dry mouth and have special properties to promote saliva production.
- Ginger ale– Nausea. Thankfully I haven’t had a lot of it but the days I do, ginger ale is actually pretty helpful. Go for a more mainstream, sweet version like Canada Dry, Seagram’s etc. because the really authentic ginger ales are often so heavy on the ginger flavor it can make you more nauseous.
- Blankets, hats, scarves, socks– Warm items. Chemo makes you lose hair EVERYWHERE which surprisingly makes you very cold. It also can give you hot flashes which makes you sweat which eventually cools your body more. Warm items are good for intermittent bouts of cold, chemo infusion days, etc.
- Tissues– Cytoxan, the drug I receive on the last day of chemo week, causes irritation in the sinuses which has basically given me a chronic stuffy nose for five months. I blow my nose a bajillion times a day. Tissues are always helpful.
- Books, magazines, crafts, audiobooks, sudoku, crossword puzzles– You spend a lot of time waiting in doctors offices, treatment, sitting at home on the couch, not working, etc. Any kind of thing to keep yourself busy is a great gift.
- Dark nail polish– For your lady friends going through chemo, dark nail polish is a big help. Chemo can make your nails grey/black and each round of treatment causes a white ring, like a tree ring, where your cells have died off. Additionally, the chemo can weaken your nails making them brittle and cause them to break or peel. Covering that up with a dark nail polish is helpful so you don’t see it but also helps strengthen your nails and protect them from UV rays which can be more harmful to weak nails.
- Lotions and Chapsticks– Dry skin is a major issue with chemo. Lubriderm, Aquaphor, Carmex, any kind of lotion or chapstick is helpful. My old roommates brought me two bottles of Lubriderm lotion which has been huge help for my skin both on my body and my bald head.
- Tea– Also good for nausea. Stick with lemon and peppermint. Peppermint tea is especially good for nausea and calming the stomach. I used to use it when I had colitis flares as well, it’s a great thing.
- A fun water bottle– Fluids, fluids, fluids! You have to keep super hydrated, especially with all the drugs going in your body. Fun water bottles really help make that process a little easier.
- Essentia water– This was a great suggestion from my chiropractor when I first got diagnosed. Essentia can be found at Whole foods, some Jewel grocery stores, and some Mariano’s grocery stores. It’s water fortified with extra minerals and such that help up your hydration. It was suggested instead of SmartWater which surprisingly is loaded with sugar that they don’t list on the label, which you don’t need extra of so stick with simple water and extra minerals. Read more on it HERE.
- Salty Snacks– If you want to include food, stick with salty snacks. Chemo kills your taste buds and smell. By the end of chemo week, I can’t taste a thing so I am adding salt to everything. Not to mention I can’t smell anything which also affects your ability to taste. Think potato chips, salty nuts, pretzels, crackers (Chicken In a Biskit crackers are a little overlooked item in the grocery store which have amazing flavor and great salt content- Check em out HERE) salty soups like Mrs. Grass or Ramen. Also, items high in protein are really helpful. People on chemo need extra protein to help combat the effects of the chemo. Also, a lot of times your treatment is coupled with high doses of Prednisone steroids which make you crave salt and increase your hunger.
- Bubble bath, bath salts, epsom salts, bath oils, candles – Your body takes a beating through any kind of treatment, chronic illness, etc. A hot bath can be very helpful so any kind of spa like product can help immensely with relaxation of the body. Just make sure to check and see if your friend has any aversion or allergy to specific smells.
- Heating pads/Gel packs/Cool packs– Again, to help the body. My skin gets sore to the touch during my chemo dump weeks and I get bone pain from the Nuepogen shots they give me to raise my white blood cell count. Versatile gel packs are my savior sometimes. These are the best kind- Comfort Gel Pack– They were introduced to me by my chiropractor almost 15 years ago and I haven’t used another hot/cold pack since. These guys can be frozen, microwaved, and boiled in hot water (the best method) and wrapped in a towel and put anywhere on your body. The gel makes them super flexible so they really mold to your body and different areas. Much better than a hot water pack or bag of ice. The heat helps with muscle and bone pain immensely and the cold can help with the neuropathy and sensitivity chemo causes in your hands and feet. Plus, they are relatively inexpensive, can take a beating, and last a long time.
- Purell– Or other similar non wash hand soap. Germs are a big problem. Being so susceptible to infection you’re washing your hands all the time. So having a ton of Purell on hand is a big help. Toss in a few small bottles that can be carried around with you.
- Children’s toothpaste– Think bubble gum or fruit flavors. The sensitive mouth and mouth sores make mint toothpaste the devil. You’ve never felt a burn like mint toothpaste on mouth sores.
- Lemonheads/Lemon Candy– Chemo, saline solution pushed through your port, Heparin in your port, they can all leave a weird taste in your mouth. Lemon candy/Lemonheads are a great flavor/candy to get rid of that taste.
- A loving note– Just a little message to let your friend know you’re there and you care to round it all out. 🙂
Well, thanks for sticking through such a long post. I hope this was of help to someone and/or gets saved for a later date when you may need it.
I’ve received a ton of love and help from plenty of people during this time and would love to pass that on. It took a while to accept help and a while to realize what I really needed so now that I am in that place I can finally offer inside advice as to what really helps. Please don’t be afraid of someone with cancer or a chronic illness. It’s not contagious and any little bit helps. But also know that even small gestures like a text or email are just as helpful as a meal or a gift card. Just being there is sometimes all someone needs.
Til’ next time,