According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2020, roughly 1.8 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States. That means that almost everyone may know someone diagnosed with cancer—a friend, a family member, or acquaintance.
Supporting someone with cancer often means supporting that person while they undergo chemotherapy and other forms of treatment.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Tips for Supporting a Loved One Going Through Chemo
- Practical Gifts to Support a Loved One Going Through Chemo
- What You Can Say to support Loved One Going Through Chemo
Chemotherapy refers to any drug that treats disease, but it is more often associated with cancer treatment. Chemotherapy can be an effective treatment for cancer but can have serious and debilitating side effects. Some of the side effects commonly associated with chemotherapy are fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, mouth sores, low blood count, hair loss, and fever.
Dealing with a diagnosis of cancer is hard enough. Then add to that the side effects of the very intervention that is supposed to treat cancer and you can see how difficult this can be. As a friend or family member of someone receiving chemotherapy, you are a vital member of the support team. If you’re looking for ways to support someone going through chemotherapy, here are some suggestions to start.
Tips for Supporting a Loved One Going Through Chemo
Supporting a loved one going through chemo works best if you think about the kind of person they are and what they might appreciate most. There are, however, some general tried and true ways you can be supportive. Remember, support is not a one-time commitment but an ongoing responsibility.
1. Listen with care
Listening is a skill that anyone can learn to do better. Anxiety and fear can interfere with listening by creating a compulsion to solve the problem or fix what is wrong. Most people who are going through something stressful simply want someone to listen with empathy, care, and concern.
You can become a better listener by working on the following:
- Be present in the moment. This means fully accepting your friend or family member’s emotions by calming your mind. Your behavioral reactions are important. Your stress level will be picked up by the other person.
- Keep an open mind. Try to reserve judgment about what is being said.
- Avoid interrupting or attempting to solve the problem unless you are asked to.
- Feel free to ask questions for clarification once the speaker has paused.
- If the person has stopped talking, ask if you should leave or if they want your company in silence.
2. Call and check in
When someone is going through chemo, they may not want visitors. There are many reasons for this. Chemo may cause nausea, fatigue, and general malaise. Someone may not be feeling or looking their best and might be embarrassed to receive visitors.
Calling on a regular basis can be a great way to show your support and check-in to see how things are going. Ask the person who is receiving chemo about the best time of day to call and put the day and time on your calendar or on your phone.
3. Arrange for meal delivery or grocery shopping
Arranging for meal delivery has a two-fold advantage as you are supporting the primary caregiver and the person on chemo. Here are some suggestions to consider:
- Talk to the person receiving chemo about any cravings they might have and keep variety in mind.
- Check with the primary caregiver regarding any dietary restrictions.
- Offer to cook homemade meals and deliver to the house. Make extra to freeze for another meal later.
4. Hands-on help
Hands-on help can be a huge help to everyone involved in someone’s care. If the person on chemo is single, this may be the most important thing you can do to help. Imagine being alone and feeling overwhelmed with tasks and responsibilities that you are too tired or sick to do. Offer to help with these tasks and ask if there is more you can help with.
- Lawn care. This can be hired out and can include lawn mowing, weeding, and other landscape services.
- Housekeeping. Offer to find a company to do regular housekeeping or if you have the time and inclination, offer your services as well.
- Shop for groceries as often as needed.
- Laundry service. If you have the option to choose a drop-off service or delivery, consider those options or help them with their laundry as well.
- Pharmacy runs to pick up medications.
- Home maintenance tasks.
- Give the primary caregiver time off. Provide company for your loved one and offer to help the primary caregiver the night or day off so they can take some time to reset and take care of their own things.
5. Take them to chemo or doctor’s appointments
Offering to take someone to their doctor’s appointments can provide relief for the caregiver and support for the person on chemo.
Don’t forget to take all of the supplies that might be needed during and after the appointment including:
- Magazines and books
- Water and snacks
- Gloves and plastic bag in case of any nausea on the way home
- Hand sanitizer
- Headphones for them to listen to music or podcasts
- Notebook to take notes on the appointment
6. Care packages and thoughtful gifts
Thoughtful, yet practical gifts can improve someone’s spirits. Chemo care packages can be a great way to show you care while providing some useful items.
- Get a spa package to celebrate the end of chemo.
- Consider restaurant certificates to enjoy a good meal once nausea and side effects have passed.
- Purchase movie or theatre tickets for your friend and one or more of their family.
- Buy new clothing to help someone feel fresh and normal again.
- Give a gift certificate for a massage.
7. Outdoor activities
Being outdoors can improve someone’s mood. Getting away from the house and getting fresh air and sunshine has lots of therapeutic benefits. Make sure to plan if possible for a day with mild weather, as extreme temperatures may not end up being helpful for anyone.
- If energy permits, go for a short walk in a park.
- Take a nature drive up a canyon or through a natural area.
- Plan a small outdoor gathering in someone’s backyard.
- Sit outside for visiting, weather permitting.
Humor can help put things in perspective and relieve tension. This might be watching a funny movie, TV shows, or sending a humorous card. You know your friend or family member well enough to know when a little humor during conversations is appropriate.
9. Do research
During cancer treatment, you can offer to do some research on treatments, side effects, and comfort solutions. The other possibility is looking for good cancer support and caregiver blogs and forums for advice and interaction.
It can take some time and effort to sort through reliable information and you can do that.
10. Offer to be the spokesperson
The task of keeping everyone informed can be overwhelming and time consuming for the primary caregiver and person on chemo. You can offer to be that person. Think of it as the role of a spokesperson for friends and family.
- Get a list of all the people that your friend or family member wants to be included in giving health information.
- Schedule weekly (or more often as needed) email updates to everyone on the list.
- Suggest that all questions on healthcare status, within reason, be addressed to you.
- As the spokesperson and with permission, keep good records of medications, treatments, prognosis, and appointments. Being a true advocate means taking responsibility. Be sensitive to boundaries and always check in to make sure you are doing what the family wants.
11. Emotional support
Emotional support is the foundation of everything we have described here. Remember that you do not have to step in as a therapist, but you are capable of recognizing signs and symptoms of a mental health problem.
It is tricky to let someone know you think they might benefit from help, but in the end, they may appreciate your honesty. If you aren’t comfortable speaking directly to your friend or family member, approach the primary caregiver about your concerns.
Some people may develop depression, anxiety, grief, and anger as a result of their cancer diagnosis or even as a side effect of their treatment. You might want to suggest seeing a professional therapist who can help with coping strategies and possibly medication. Support groups are another option-either online or in person. Help your friend stay positive by celebrating progress, however small it may seem.
When chemo is finished, your work is not done. It is normal for people to move on when they think that treatment is finished and they are no longer needed. Things change, and continuing to check-in will be appreciated.
12. Care for the caregiver
The primary caregiver for someone diagnosed with cancer can be forgotten. The responsibilities and duties of a caregiver are exhausting and overwhelming.
You can be a gentle reminder that the caregiver needs support too. Suggest self-care ideas such as time off, good nutrition, exercise, and relaxation techniques. Help make these possible by providing the same level of support that you do to the person receiving chemo.
Practical Gifts to Support a Loved One Going Through Chemo
The definition of a practical gift is one that is useful. Sometimes choosing practical gifts can be challenging, but below are some ideas that anyone may appreciate going through chemo.
13. Hypoallergenic lotions and lip balm
During chemotherapy, your loved one’s skin can become dry, rough, itchy, and red. There is also the possibility of peeling, cracks, sores, or rashes. Since chemo can make skin more susceptible to sunburn, lotions with SPF are good choices. Lotion and lip balm help your loved one going through chemo feel fresh and keep their skin supple and soft.
14. Water bottle
When we say a water bottle is a practical gift, we mean a really good bottle that is adaptable and durable. Dehydration is a common side effect of chemotherapy. There are many great water bottles out there with good reviews.
15. Noise-cancelling headphones
Granted, noise-canceling headphones are not inexpensive, but if your loved one doesn’t have a pair, they will love having them. Or, perhaps they could use an upgrade. Headphones create a peaceful environment and can be paired with a smartphone or TV for private listening.
16. Fleece blanket and fuzzy socks
Chemo centers in hospitals can be chilly, so having a lightweight fleece blanket and fuzzy socks provides warmth and comfort. And yes, a blanket is useful even in the summer when the air conditioner is turned high.
When you think of a backpack, you might envision something for hiking, but that is not what we have in mind. A versatile and attractive backpack when traveling to the hospital or outpatient clinic can be a wonderful way for your loved one to bring everything they need. Look for options that have multiple pockets in and out for ease of storage.
A good example is the backpack Made by Design that can accommodate a laptop, has lots of room for other things like clothing, and has zippered pockets for securing money and cell phone.
18. The little things that have a big impact
Sometimes the little things can go a long way to add comfort and a feeling of care. For example, gum and mints, ginger candies for nausea, eyeshades to block out light, healthy snacks like protein bars, a neck pillow, organic herbal teas, and head coverings are just a few ideas.
What You Can Say to support Loved One Going Through Chemo
Knowing what to say can be one of the hardest things to do when supporting a loved one going through chemo. A good rule of thumb is to be positive without giving false hope. Most people dealing with cancer understand and accept the realities of their situation and can use some optimistic yet realistic support. What you say must be followed by doing. Your loved one’s trust in your support happens through repeated commitment to do what you say you will.
19. We will get through this together
By stating that you and your loved one are together on this journey, you offer reassurance and support now and for the future. You can’t know what your loved one is going through, but you are a team-a partnership that will tackle any problems together.
20. I don’t know what you are going through but I am here for you
If you say that you are there for a loved one going through chemo, you need to back it up. You may be busy and stressed on any given day, but your loved one is tired, irritable, and needs you. Being there for someone means putting aside your needs and attending to supporting your loved one.
21. I am here to listen to what you need
Being present for whatever your loved one needs to say is a gift of its own kind. It is important to remember that they have to express any sad, angry, hopeless, hopeful, or resigned feelings. Whatever it is, listen and accept that feelings are real but also fleeting and constantly changing.
22. Whatever happens I am here to give you strength
When your loved one feels despair, nausea, and fatigue, it affects you too. Find someone else to express those feelings to because your loved one will need your strength. Your emotional stability is the foundation that your loved one relies on to vent their feelings safely.
23. Let’s focus on the value of today
Shifting the focus to what brings your loved one pleasure and joy for today can be enormously healing and comforting. Ask your loved one what would make them happy and then plan for that. Sometimes cancer and chemo can seem to be all the two of you think about and tend to. Anything that can bring enjoyment is a benefit.
Supporting Someone Receiving Chemotherapy is Worthwhile
You may not have time for all of our suggestions, but even a few will make a significant difference in someone’s journey of being treated for cancer.
Some of these tips may resonate more than others, and that is fine. Choose what is best for you and know that your contribution is valuable and appreciated.
- “How Many People Are Diagnosed With Cancer Each Year?” The National Cancer Institute. seer.cancer.gov