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.
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.
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.
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/statfacts/html/common.html