6 Helpful Things to Say or Do for a Cancer Patient

I wrote this in honor of my 30th year being cancer free. In April of 1984 I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Luckily it turned out alright and here I am 30 years later to tell you that cancer is not an automatic death sentence. I have since gone through cancer diagnoses and treatments of my husband, my mother, my brother and my father-in-law. additionally, my mother-in-law and my aunt are also both cancer survivors. 

Last post I called the 10 Things Never to Say or Do to a Cancer Patient. This time I want to share helpful things that were said or done for us as we went through our cancer adventures. Here is a list of actions and activities that most cancer patients will welcome.

1) Offer to listen. And then really listen. No talking about your own fears and agenda (or anything on the list from last time). Listen, help them process. If this makes you uncomfortable, then offer something else from the list below.

2) Take them a meal. Don’t offer, just do it. Better yet, organize their friends to bring meals. This was one of THE best things our friends did for us when my husband was sick. Frankly, with all the decisions that had to be made at the time, choosing what to eat or to cook or even to buy was overwhelming. Being able to open the front door and find healthy cooked meal was perfect. Our friends organized meals that came 3 times a week for 8 weeks. It was a lifesaver for us.

3) If they have kids, make play dates and or sleepovers. This was one of the hard parts for us when my husband had his cancer. Our kids were 6 and 1; our daughter was still nursing and couldn’t be separated, but our son was in 1st grade and had tons of energy. Unfortunately, the parents at the private school where he was enrolled really let us down. There were very few offers to have him over and it was a drain on me. We moved him out the school the next year because of this. I yearned for caring people to spend time with my son so that I could be there for my husband.

4) Offer to come over and do laundry, especially if they have kids. Laundry does not stop because someone has cancer. It needs to be done and it is very helpful when someone else does it. Having my laundry washed and folded was a real treat and helped us out immensely.

5) Offer to listen to the cancer patient’s spouse/partner. If they are married, the spouse is the one who is most likely doing everything, frightened out of his/her mind and receiving very little support. My husband and I both agree that while it awful to be a cancer patient, it is equally awful to be the spouse of one. So many people are focused on the patient, rarely is anyone offering to help the spouse.

6) If you can’t figure out what to do or what to say, then say so. Speak from your heart. It is okay to say that you don’t know what to say, and that you are there for them. Tell them that you are thinking of them and that they are not alone. One of the most comforting things I heard was from a friend who told me that I was not alone, going through this terrifying experience. She told me that all our friends were going through it with us. Even though we were on the ‘front lines,’ they were all freaked out with and for us as we moved through the cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery period. This was very helpful for me.

I always tell people that belonging to the cancer survivor club is one of the best clubs ever–it sure beats the alternative. Have you had a personal experience with cancer? Would love to hear what helped you get through it in the comments section.



As a blogger, I enjoy sharing my ideas and thoughts with people, and I get a special thrill when someone leaves a comment. When you share my posts on social media sites, I jump up and down doing a happy dance. So thank you!

9 thoughts on “6 Helpful Things to Say or Do for a Cancer Patient

  1. Lorrie Goldin

    Cancer is very isolating, so it helped me when people kept in touch, especially through email (which I could read and re-read at my leisure). I especially enjoyed hearing about their take on politics (it was the 2012 Presidential election) as well as mundane and funny stuff that was going on in their lives–it’s hard to feel so separate from everyday life, and being able to think about things other than cancer was a boon.

    There were also some memorable gestures/gifts: my brother’s stepson sent me the entire download of Tig Notaro’s hilarious “I have cancer” comedy routine after I mentioned hearing an excerpt on Fresh Air; a couple of friends sent me Marty Rossman’s guided imagery CDs for dealing with surgery, chemo, and radiation; and my friend Mary gave me both a beautiful gardening book and a Line-a-Day 5-Year Memory Book–a vote of confidence that I had a garden and another five years to come!

    Reply
    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      I love the idea of sending audio tapes and books and the ‘promise of a future’ with books. I will have to remember that for the future with friends and relatives as they join the survivor’s club. I once sent a music tape to a friend who was going through a difficult time and had made choices that I didn’t know how to deal with or even what to say. But I knew she was hurting and so I sent her a tape of music that I found healing with the hopes that she might find comfort from it too.

      Reply
  2. Cynthia Reifler Flores

    It makes me happy that you arer thirty years cancer free! It makes me sad that I was not around to be support to you. I am grateful for your thoughtful advice on how to be a better friend to those going through the nightmare of cancer. I hope I never get another chance to use your insights. Blessings to you and yours.

    Reply
    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      Thank you Cindy, appreciate the sentiment. we can’t always be there for all the people we love. But learning from each other on how best to comfort our loved ones in crisis is something for us all. I hope you don’t get a chance to use these suggestions, but in case you do….

      Reply
  3. frank spigel

    Heidi,
    I like your suggestion about taking meals over to a person’s home who has cancer.but before you do shouldn’t you check with the family on food likes and dislikes as well as food allergies?
    Also if your going to have follow-up check-ups. as in my case and your retires who is doing your check-ups, don’t always go the person he says, check with other people. For example the endocrinologist, my doctor suggested was not conveniently located, so I checked with a friend who gave me name of a doctor who was easy to get to and who my primary care doctor liked as well.

    Reply
    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      Good caveats! I always appreciate people checking in with me about food allergies because I have them. And you are so right, we all need to research our medical health care practitioners. This summer one of my many projects has been to find new MDs for us as we are moving from our PPO insurance to an HMO plan and of course most of our healthcare providers are not part of the new network. Just blindly following one person’s advice is never a good idea in my opinion.

      Reply
  4. Kim A. Hazel

    I found your blog on BlogHer16 and was drawn to the title . (I went to BH15, but won’t be able to make it to LA.) We certainly have cancer survivorship in common. It’s the reason why I started my blog and my continual focus on having a balanced life. These are good tips. Continue to happily survive and thrive!

    Reply
    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      Hi Kim, so glad you found me. Surviving cancer is big, glad you made it. I’ve signed up for BlogHer 16, but I might need to sell my ticket as we get closer to the date. I really appreciate that BlogHer allows ticket holders to sell them. I’ll check out your blog, always want to support other bloggers!

      Reply
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