How to React to and Help a Loved One with Cancer

by katiem2

Dealing with cancer? Learn how to react, treat and care for a loved one when you learn they have cancer, during treatment and when facing possible terminal diagnosis.

It is a numbing reality to hear the words that either a friend or family member has been diagnosed. It's shocking when they themselves first hear the news so much so a period of time passes before they can utter the words to anyone in their inner circle. First and foremost never say, "Why didn't you tell me sooner" as the hardest part of being diagnosed with cancer, for most, is telling those they love. It takes time to process the news of cancer. Let's explore the ways others have handled such devastating news and the best things to do for those suffering cancer, treatments, surgery and the many other things that must be done when battling cancer.

Cancer Patients Want Friends and Family to Visit

When Terminal Patients Don't Want a Funeral A Living Wake

I recently lost my cousin. She was the youngest of my closest group of cousins and hands down one of my favorite. Betty found out in May that she had lung cancer after a visit to the doctor due to severe back pain. 

After visiting the oncologist she learned it had spread to her liver, spine, and lymph system.  The doctor told her she had 3 to 6 months. Although she never accepted the fact that cancer would take her life it did after 9 months, it had spread to her brain.  

During those months she did everything possible to survive. She did not want to die, leave her kids or family. She had every chemo and radiation combination the doctor would allow, even though he advised her there was little if any hope.

She told me and all others she did not want a funeral, in fact she refused to have a funeral but instead she wanted anyone who would attend her funeral to come visit her while still alive. I did as much a possible, we lived 6 hours apart. 

During our visits she talked to me about those who had not come to see her and hoped they would because she wanted to say goodbye, reflect on good times and help them to accept and learn about death. 

During the last 9 months of her life it was the little things that mattered to Betty.  She raved about the coconut cream pie her Mom baked for her and only her, she ate the whole pie over several days. We never got a whole of anything as kids. The pie was a big deal and many other little gestures like that really made her smile and feel loved. At Christmas I baked cut out sugar cookies frosting and decorating them like we did as kids, she loved them. 

The Cancer Helper

Many find it easier to focus on the course of treatment ahead without the emotional response from loved ones. Maintaining silence is an attempt to stay positive and focus on getting well.

The act of saying the words out loud may break the emotional dam allowing for sadness and fear to set in, something no one gearing up to battle cancer wants.

If someone you love has kept a cancer diagnosis from you don't take it personally.

First and foremost move on to the person closest to them determining your best course of action. The spouse, partner, parent or sibling of the one suffering cancer, and all it entails, will know best what you can do to help. 

Maintain a connection with this contact person to stay informed as to how to help and stick to creating pleasant moments with the patient. 

Don't Avoid A Friend with Cancer

The last thing anyone should do is avoid someone or treat anyone with cancer different.

Those with cancer may find their personal hiding place and while they need their privacy and space there is a place and role for you in this fight as well. 

Be a Silent Partner

Be humble waiting quietly to do anything needed when the time comes and it will.

The best things we can do for loved ones, friends and family with living with cancer is to act immediately don’t avoid them or treat them differently than you typically would. Step in and take action, read this entirely for many ways to do that without making the friend feel bad. 

When Cancer Patients Withdraw

People with Cancer Tend to Fall Below the Social Radar.

One of the worst feelings a cancer patient may experience is being cut off from life as they once knew it with the fear of losing themselves and their life before they've even begun to fight.

It may seem friends and loved ones facing cancer are in denial or withdrawn and yet honestly it's often the best most healthy way to cope. They are merely exhausted both mentally and physically unable to maintain their normal routine or personality.

Most people need to focus on anything other than the cancer. While in the background they are dealing with it, the treatments and doctor’s appointments they need a distraction, a sense of normalcy. 

Talking About Cancer

The topic of conversation with cancer patients does not need to be about cancer.

There is no need to say anything about the cancer. Your friend will bring it up if and when they want until then you can simply say “I'm here if you want to talk about it otherwise I'll continue to simply be your friend, be here and enjoy life as you can and want”. 

Maintain Normalicy When Facing Cancer

The shock of cancer easily alters the life of all those involved.

A sense of the everyday normal helps to ground the person just diagnosed and those who love them. The reminders of what they love about life helps them concentrate on maintaining the life and people they love doing everything possible to beat it. 

How to Help Someone With Cancer

If there is someone in your life struggling with cancer renew the relationship.

There are people in our lives we care a great deal about and yet life has a way of putting gaps of time in the path of the relationship.

If you learn such a person has cancer you no doubt want to do something to reach out and help.

It's hard to know what to do and for this reason many step back and remain out of the picture.

Anyone facing cancer needs a network of quiet supporters who go about life as usual. The best thing for you to do is to renew and restore the relationship.

Create a Contact List

Establish a contact person close to the friend or loved one with cancer.

Establish the best person to contact other than the patient, if they don't seem receptive, not giving up until you gain contact and a line of communication. People need help during chemo and or radiation treatments. They won't ask but need it.

Call or drop by to let them know you're here for them. Give them your phone numbers, having already written your name, phone numbers, address and email for them to contact you. Add a list of things your available to help with.

The example to the right is the perfect gift for adding all contact information and a help list

A Cancer Contact Book

Write the person you want to reach out to a note.

Create a contact book adding your contact information and a list of things you're available to help them with. It's important to make the list as the cancer patient will be distracted with treatments working hard to get to them and through them. Those struggling with any kind of cancer don't know what to ask for.

Those involved are so overwhelmed with the cancer and how it has changed their normal routine they fight to maintain their own schedule and well-being. Giving a contact book is a great way to help. They can refer to this book and contact you for things on your list and also add others information to it when they visit by simply offering it to them when they ask what they can do. They will follow your lead.

This shouldn't be an address book or other in alphabetical order yet a simple journal with you filling in the first page. This gives others a first hand example right at their fingertips. They will then follow your lead adding their contact information and help list to the following page creating a powerful resource of help when needed.

Make Others Aware of Cancer

Let anyone and everyone you know cares about this person that they have received a cancer diagnosis.

Call anyone and everyone you know who also cares for this person telling them what's going on.

Let them know about the contact book and encourage them to visit offering to add their information to the contact book.

How to Drop by or Call to Help


Make sure the significant other, children or spouse living with the person dealing with their diagnosis know you have created this book, what it looks like and where it is, explaining to them the plan of action behind the book.

Best case scenario, show this person or persons the book.

Create a Cancer Help Network

The most important thing you can do is to make yourself available anytime you are needed

Establishing the Best Contact Person

Show this person the book as they may be the best way to fill the book without overwhelming the person about to experience weeks, months or possibly years of treatment.

Establish the significant caregiver as the contact person getting their contact information to share with those who want to help to insure they get their information added to the list.

Also let those you call know to contact the go to person if they can't reach the friend with cancer.

Cancer Help Ideas

A List of Helpful things Useful to Those Fighting Cancer

Helpful Things You Can Do to Help - This is a list of useful things you can volunteer to do adding the list to your contact page including times and day’s best for you also indicating if you want to be on the round the clock contact list as well.

Don't Wait! Get involved the minute you hear of the friend with cancer.

10 Things Friends Can do to Help

There are so many things you can do to help a friend and their family when cancer becomes a part of their daily routine.

The Cancer Help List

  1. Run errands, shopping, or carpool kids.
  2. Late night food run for cravings be it a cheeseburger and fries or a watermelon.
  3. Cook bringing food, drinks and groceries.
  4. Yard work and or take out the trash.
  5. Bring the mail up to the house daily.
  6. Maintain the car, fuel up, check fluids, air pressure in tires etc.
  7. Come over to set with friend/cancer patient, read, bring movies or books on tape etc.
  8. Call to chat with the friend talking to them as you would before the diagnosis.
  9. Take the kids out for dinner; bring them to your house for play dates etc.
  10. Water plants, dust, vacuum, wash dishes, do laundry, make beds etc.

What Those With Cancer Want

Share your experiences with either having cancer yourself or a loved one with it and what you found to be helpful and appreciated
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No, But I had a loved one with cancer and did this to help;
katiem2 on 09/19/2017

My cousin recently passed from cancer and what mattered to her was good company, good food, times and laughs. She wanted everyone to visit her while she was alive, reminisce and have good times. She said, "when you find out you don't have much living left, you want to do it as much as possible." She did not have a funeral, she enjoyed a living wake for the 9 months before she passed spending time with family and friends.

Donna on 09/19/2017

A very helpful gesture was a bunch of parking passes for the garage at treatment center. It gets very expensive

Bobski606 on 01/30/2017

My Uncle has recently been diagnosed with a late stage cancer and he appreciated a call and surprise visit every once in a while. He loves to talk about this and that he's done during the week and even reflect on things he did 60 years ago.

dustytoes on 04/26/2013

A neighbor of mine had discovered she had cancer and I ordered a free recipe book for people with cancer to give to her and she totally loved the fact that I had done that for her. Even small things that show you care can mean a lot.

Yes, I've had cancer and found it very helpful when people;
kenna vallejos on 02/15/2017

I want questions not assumptions. Every battle is different ask me if your not sure and even if you are ask me....."Whats it like?, What are you the most afraid of? Are you afraid? How can I serve you? Do you need me to be quiet? So many tell you what you can't do, what you have to do, so few ask.

Tracy on 04/27/2015

My best friend that will drop everything to come and hold my hand and let me cry. No explanation needed. My husband for understanding my mood swings and moments of grief AND anger. Mostly they are just here. In the moment with me. We don't need to talk but I always know they are here.

MsRita on 04/23/2015

I remember when I had cancer those that did something even when they didn’t know what to do.....

Jen on 04/02/2015

When I had surgery for cancer my biggest concern was for my husband and 3 young boys. Our friends started a food chain on Facebook making sure my family had meals dropped off for two weeks while I was recovering. Not having to worry about my family being taken care of was such a relief and gave me peice if mind and the strength to recover knowing that they were being taken care of.

Updated: 09/19/2017, katiem2
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katiem2 on 03/18/2017

DerdriuMarriner, My cousin recently died of cancer, Feb. 2017. She had back pain that became unbearable, went to the emergency room after a particularly taxing physical day of work thinking she had seriously hurt herself. It was there, after an xray, she was told she had a mass on her lung which was no doubt cancer.

Two weeks later she went to see an oncologist, had a pet scan and learned it was stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to her liver, lymph nodes and spine. It is mind boggling to image cancer can spread so far without any obvious signs. As we get older, she was in her forties, we tend to think aches and pains become a normal part of life, and yet when do we take heed. Facts are many cancers don't present symptoms until advanced.

My cousin Betty, had all the chemo, radiation and other treatments possible fighting for her life. I spent precious time with her listening to her fears, concerns, regrets and wrestling with death. She did not want to die, she fought till the bitter end hoping she could beat it regardless of the very grim reports, even after the doctors told her there was nothing more they could do for her and that she had maybe three months.

It was April of 2015 when she learned about the mass in her lung and she passed away 10 months later. I learned so much during this time. I will need to add what I learned to this article.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/10/2017

katiem2, Thank you for the kind, spot-on observations and product line! In particular, I like your list of how to help since I may have thought of some but not all (such as car care) of the top 10.

katiem2 on 07/22/2013

AnomalousArtist, It is a hard topic and yet we have to dive in as it's far worse to let someone go though it feeling those closet to them don't care about them as they thought they did or worse yet pass away feeling unloved and as if their life had little meaning leaving little impression or a mark.

AnomalousArtist on 07/21/2013

What a great article to share...I remember reading Gilda Radner's book and even Gene Wilder was confused about what to "do" with a loved one who is sick. Tough issue, thanks for approaching it!

katiem2 on 04/11/2013

pawpaw, Well said, very good advice, thank you for sharing your personal experience.

pawpaw on 04/11/2013

Very important information. Having been through it, with a family member, it is important that they know that they aren't in it alone. The main thing is to be there when, and if needed.

katiem2 on 04/01/2013

ologsinquito, A great way to help anyone with cancer.

ologsinquito on 04/01/2013

Katie, I start praying when I find out someone has cancer, that they may be led to seek the right treatments for their conditions. Unfortunately, cancer seems to be an epidemic right now.

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