It’s not easy seeing someone you know go through chemotherapy. It can be challenging to know how to act or what to say, which leads to many people making themselves distant and hoping that the cancer treatment will go away if they ignore it. This happens all too often, even with family members and good friends.
Although it can be hard finding out someone you care about has cancer, we believe that facing it head-on together can make a big difference. This is the best thing you can do for yourself and your sick friend / loved one.
But we do know that even though you want to offer the support you might not know exactly what to do. So we have some tips on how you can help throughout your friends’ chemotherapy journey.
First – take time for yourself.
Let’s start with you! When finding out a loved one, a close friend or even a colleague is about to have chemotherapy, as well as thinking about your friend’s emotions it is important to address your own feelings. It is perfectly okay to feel a range of emotions from sad, angry, scared, or even numb.
If you are having a hard time, there are a range of people you can talk to. Remember, whatever you are feeling, try to be sensitive and empathetic to your friend with cancer. It’s okay to tell them you are upset but don’t let it lead to them having to comfort you.
Offering and finding cancer patients emotional support
It can be very hard for someone with cancer to ask for and receive support. The most important thing is to take your friend’s lead. Although we always suggest not to offer advice that the cancer patient really doesn’t want to hear, (you may want to help but unasked for advice in this situation can do more harm than good) do be mindful that dealing with chemotherapy medications and their side effects can be tough and they will need the support of a good friend – YOU.
When someone you know gets cancer, you may want to do everything in your power to make them better and help out. Sometimes this can lead to that person feeling overwhelmed. It is impossible to predict your friend’s feelings with regard to their chemotherapy and how this is affecting their life.
Always ask for permission before visiting, as it is vital to give your friend space to relax. Try not to get frustrated if your friend has to cancel plans, chemo can be extremely tiring, so please be forgiving and flexible.
Talk and listen to your friend with cancer
When you know someone has cancer an easy option is to avoid the friend or avoid the subject. This happens a lot. We know that it is not easy to know what to say. The most important advice, however, is not to avoid people with cancer when they may need you most and to pay attention to clues when you speak with them, whether they want to talk to you or not is up to them.
Chemotherapy can be very daunting and someone with cancer facing the thought of chemo can go through a range of emotions. There is no right or wrong way for you or someone with cancer to behave and we cannot advise whether talking about it is a good idea as everyone deals with their emotions differently.
Talking it through might help your friend, however, they may want to talk but find it difficult, and/or it may make them afraid of the reality of the situation. Sensitivity is definitely required and you will need to judge the situation and perhaps ask the person whether they feel comfortable talking about their cancer and treatments.
The best thing you can do for someone with cancer is just to be there for them and perhaps help them feel normal. Let them know you are there to talk whenever they want to. Sometimes just having you listen is all they need. Don’t avoid talking about their treatment, but don’t make it the topic of every conversation. Sometimes they won’t want to talk about it and a ‘normal’ conversation might be just what they need and the best way of supporting them. And if you don’t know what to say that’s OK, you could just let them know that.
Questions and giving advice
Although it is our nature to ask questions, sometimes questions might not be welcomed and can cause a person with cancer to feel uncomfortable. Asking politely if it’s okay to ask a question can be helpful and make sure they know it’s okay to say no if they don’t want to answer or if they don’t want to talk.
Giving advice and suggestions in these situations is also difficult. You may want to help by offering advice and it may be that case that you find something familiar to relate to their situation. This is fine if you have been in their situation, but remember everyone’s treatment is different. What worked for you might not work for them and negative stories about their situation are never helpful.
Give someone with a cancer diagnosis your time
Saying, “I can listen if you need me to” or “let me know if you need any help” might not be viewed as a sincere offer of help and it is often hard for someone to ask. It is better to make concrete offers of help such as “can I get your grocery shopping” or “shall we go for a short walk together? Practical suggestions for ways you can help are listed below.
Practical ideas to show support
Another way to be there is to offer a helping hand, do practical things like their daily shopping or give their house a quick clean. Although these tasks might seem mediocre to you, they can take up a lot of energy from someone going through chemo and can make a big difference to their lives.
Take them to their cancer treatment
Chemotherapy can go on for weeks. Even when people with cancer have a lot of friends and family it can be hard to find a person (or people) to commit to taking a cancer patient to and from their appointments.
Added to this is the fact that the person with cancer may need extra support at this time.
For example, they may
- be afraid of the treatment and its side effects
- feel nauseous and/or tired after therapy
- be worried about specific changes occuring to their body (such has hair loss or broken skin)
- feel like their loved-ones are being neglected (life-parner, children….)
- need help during the hospital/clinic visit
So knowing that there is someone they can rely on to take them to their therapy can be a major boon in their life.
Take care of a special family member
It’s important not to forget that the person’s spouse, children, parents, and other friends and family may be going through tough times also. They may need some emotional support after your friend’s cancer diagnosis or practical help whilst they are dealing with the cancer patient.
If you are a friend or a distant relative, visit and check in on the family. Ask their partner, children, or parents how they are, and offer your help if they need it. Long hospital appointments and stress can be exhausting for a close relative. Offer to cook some meals for the family or help with child care.
Simply asking how a partner, parent, or child is doing can show that you are supporting the whole family and an offer to help with the family might take a bit of weight off the cancer patient’s mind.
Looking after normal daily tasks
Some helpful things you can offer to help with on a day-to-day basis, to help life feel a bit more normal for your friend and their family include:
- taking the cancer patients kids to soccer practice or any clubs/activities
- take care of the grocery shopping
- take your friend to their doctor’s appointments (you could even offer to take notes, if appropriate)
- pick up their medications
- chores around the house such as ironing or washing up
Provide appropriate food on days after chemo
Dietary restrictions on someone with cancer are usually imposed due to metallic tastes, loss of appetite and dehydration caused by treatment. So it is important to recognize that what your friend with cancer might have previously loved to eat before their diagnosis, may not be suitable after therapy sessions.
In addition, straight after chemo they may not feel up to cooking for themselves and may need your help. Knowing what to cook for a chemo patient is not easy, so it’s best to ask what they may feel like eating after therapy.
Some people pre-cook meals and leave them in their friends’ house to eat when they feel up to it. Others visit after chemo to make sure the people eat. How you and your friend deal with the logistics is up to you, but making sure the cancer patient eats at some point is a good way of supporting them.
Getting thoughtful gifts for someone going through chemo
There are many thoughtful gifts that can help with chemo, its side effects and convalescence. These are discussed in other articles on this site (which are listed at the end of this article), but here are a few examples of things you could buy and things you could do at no or little cost.
- A pretty new reusable water bottle can help to rehydrate your friend and could be used as a gentle reminder to drink more water. There are a variety of pattern choices, chose one that suits your friends’ personality best.
- a gift certificate for a movie streaming service like Netflix to help them relax and take their minds off the stress of their therapy.
- send frequent notes, letters or texts (brief and light), just to show you care. This simple gesture could make your friend’s day.
- a scheduled visit to spend some quality time together might be of value.
There are also several companies and charities around the world which offer freebies for chemotherapy and cancer patients as below
- Chemotherapy Freebies
- Freebies For Adults With Cancer
- Cancer Freebies For Teens
- Freebies For Kids With Cancer
Create a care package.
Creating a chemo care package for your friend, colleague, or loved one is a perfect way to show you care. It can be a little confusing as to what the care package should entail as everyone responds to chemo treatment differently.
Here are the do’s and don’t when creating your chemo care package.
- Magazines or Books – Chemotherapy sessions can be lengthy so finding a few magazines or books they can read to pass the time is a great first step to creating a care package. If they are not into reading, or they have brain fog due to therapy, there are various coloring or puzzle books as an alternative.
- Blankets and Socks – A side effect of chemo treatment can be cold hands and feet, so a soft blanket or some fluffy socks to keep them warm is a very thoughtful addition.
- Moisturizers – Another side effect is dehydration, which leads to dry skin. A hand moisturizer and some lip balm for dry lips will not only be soothing but make your loved one feel pampered.
- Soft Pillow – Sitting for hours through chemo can be uncomfortable. A nice soft pillow your friend can use at this time will be much appreciated..
- Music – Downloading some music onto a portable device with some headphones can help your friend relax and take their mind away from day-to-day life. Don’t forget to pack a battery pack too.
- Flowers – When someone is sick, we tend to buy them some flowers to cheer them up. However, flowers and plants can carry germs, which wouldn’t affect a healthy person. But with chemotherapy reducing your friends’ immune system significantly, it is not worth the risk of them catching the germs leading to an infection.
- Food – Nausea is a common side effect of chemo, so we think avoiding food and drink is for the best unless you ask what they would like first. Also, during chemo, patients often express that their tastes have changed and what they once love to eat now leaves a bad taste.
- Hair Coverings – People usually assume that when you have cancer, that means you will lose your hair. However, this is not always the case, cancer research and treatments have advanced immensely. Hair loss can still be a chemo symptom, but waiting to see if it happens before you buy anything first is probably best.
- Spa Treatment Gift Certificates– We know that spa treatments are meant to relax you, but we recommend avoiding adding this gift to your care package. A variety of different spa treatments can bring on lymphedema in patients with or who are recovering from cancer, these treatments include but are not limited to massages, saunas, and steam rooms. Also, the skin can become very sensitive or broken after chemo, so body scrubs should also be avoided.
A selection of chemotherapy gift hampers
Another thing you can do with regard to practical and emotional support is to set up a support team for your friend, perhaps taking the lead on this with a mutual friend or family member. This team would consist of family and friends and would perhaps offer support by rotating some of the responsibilities highlighted above or they could designate one task to one person.
Maybe set up a group email system? and or a schedule/rota. This could be a nice way to include all the people who want to be involved, in the care of your friend.
When treatment is over
Everyone responds differently, and it can take up to six months for chemotherapy to get out of the system. Recovery from the different chemotherapy side effects also does not occur at the same time for everyone and most people recover from different side effects at different stages.
So with this in mind, it’s important not to get ahead of yourself and organize a big celebration unless you are sure that they are ready for it, as time for recovery may still be needed after the last session of therapy and your friend might still need some practical and emotional support.
And finally, if you do offer to help make sure you follow through. Keep in mind that they are probably relying on you more than you realize.
We would really like to hear from you
If you have experience chemotherapy or know someone who has, please contact us with your thoughts.
Did we get it right? Is there anything you would like to add?
Would you like to write about your experience?
Please do get in touch, we would love to hear from you.
Dr Cohen started her working life as a research scientist and lecturer with over 100 peer-reviewed scientific publications.
She followed a classical scientific career until she left mainstream science in 2000 (which coincided with the birth of her first daughter) to establish the Life Science Communications company, Euroscicon Ltd.
Euroscicon Ltd was her first company (which she sold in 2016).
In 2013 Dr Cohen was diagnosed with Cancer and set up Cancer Care Parcel which provides appropriate gifts for people with cancer.
Dr Cohen is the lead scientific advisor at Optimised Healthcare. A medical profiling company which provides advanced disease prediction, prevention and wellness optimization services.
She also works with and establishes businesses and charities which benefit local, national and international communities.