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  • A Loved One Has Cancer - What Can I Do For Them?

Published on July 24, 2013

A Loved One Has Cancer - What Can I Do For Them?

By Darla Gullikson, RN
Avera Sacred Heart Cancer Center

Very few people in this world can say that in some way they have not been touched by cancer. Its toll continues to grow across the world, and experts estimate that if current trends continue, 22.2 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed by the year 2030; most of those will be in developing countries. Therefore, sooner or later, those people will unexpectedly be struggling with the dilemma of what can I do to help my friend or loved one through the cancer experience.

When people are diagnosed with cancer, their lives instantly change and they are now entering one of the scariest times of their lives. Everyone who is diagnosed with cancer needs help from others sometime during this experience:  practical assistance, emotional support, kind words or acts and loving gestures.

On a monthly basis our social worker and I facilitate cancer survivor support group meetings and feel this is a subject more people need to be knowledgeable. While discussing the different gestures that our survivors experienced, the one thing that speaks loudest is kindness. It can work wonders for those in need.  Please consider some of the tips from our local survivors that a friend or loved one bestowed upon them while they were going through treatments. Please keep in mind one’s needs may change from day to day.

  • Be a good listener.  If you want to listen, which is what your loved one with cancer wants you to do, you need to focus on the speaker’s words, feelings and their meaning. Pay attention to their body language and nonverbal behavior. Be careful and do not give advice or judge them as a complainer and then start to blame or advise.  Please give your friend of loved one the gift of your entire attention.
  • Your loved one may want to hear about topics other than to talk about her cancer.  Sit down and talk about subjects that you usually would discuss with your loved one or friend such as a book, movies and your family. However, don’t avoid talking about the cancer if this is what the person wants at the time.
  • Offer to take them to their doctor appointments or cancer treatments.  Sometimes travel is involved and it may be a concern to the individual on how she will get to her appointments or even afford the cost of travel.  This is also a great time to be with your loved one to just talk.
  • Offer to cook. One survivor appreciated having her friend bring supper on the days that she received chemotherapy treatments. One should ask if there are foods, or the smell or texture of certain foods the loved one should avoid or cannot tolerate due to the side effect of the treatments. Another idea is to buy Meals on Wheels for a few weeks during their treatments.
  • Help with housework. Do a load of laundry. Change the loved one’s bedding and wash it for the next changing. You may need to take the laundry to your house and bring it back nicely folded in the basket. Do the grocery shopping. Ask the individual to make a list of grocery needs and offer to pick them up. You can even offer to pay for someone else to do the housecleaning. Consider signing up for “Cleaning for a Reason” and help your loved ones sign for their services. It is a nonprofit organization partnering with maid services to offer free professional house cleanings to improve the lives of women undergoing cancer treatment. Go to
  • Offer to do yard work. Your loved one or friend may be a gardener and can’t get out to plant or weed it. Offer to do this for them. Mow the lawn. You may be helping the spouse out in giving them more time to spend with their loved one instead of doing the yard work. If the individual is sedentary in a particular room of the house, set up a birdbath or feeder in front of the window so he can watch the birds come to eat or play.
  • Send cards or small gifts.  Remembering someone with just a short “Hello, I’m thinking of you” note can boost their spirits. Send more than just one card, however. It is nice to hear from people in the beginning when things are very difficult, but to send a card a few weeks later assures your friend or loved one that you truly are thinking of them. One survivor told me how they got a small gift from a friend after each chemo treatment. She looked forward to the small gifts of treats, empowering messages, or a flower. It helped her get through the tough days of treatments.
  • Help her buy a wig. If your loved one will be loosing her hair when she has treatments, go with her to a wig shop or salon to pick out the wig she will need to wear. Have fun and maybe suggest this to be an opportunity for your friend to see how she looks as a blonde or red head. Some friends have even had their head shaved so their friend will feel not so alone in their ordeal. Remember to also offer to attend your local ACS Look Good Feel Better program for makeup tips and hairstyle suggestions.
  • Go visit your friend or loved one. If you know they are not feeling real well, make your visit short. Even a short visit with a good friend can be a mood booster.
  • Offer to care for their pets. Take the pets out for their daily walks or go with your friend when she walks her pet.  If the pet needs to go to the vet, offer to take care of this also. Remember, pets play a vital role in many peoples lives.
  • Give them a gift certificate. Gift certificates to restaurants, spa, massage therapy, video stores or, if appropriate, financial assistance are nice gifts. Small gifts that you know someone would like are also appreciated. A survivor mentioned that she was always cold after receiving her treatments and just loved having her warmed rice bag to lie down with and rest.
  • If you are a cancer survivor who has gone through treatments for the same cancer diagnosis as your friend or loved one, please offer to talk to them and allow them to ask you questions about your cancer experience. Many survivors have mentioned how much it helped them to realize that they are not alone, and that others have had the same feelings and fears when dealing with their cancer.
  • Assist individuals if they need any information on their particular cancer, by contacting the American Cancer Society. The Navigator program is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They will supply you with free information and research any question you may have. The number for the ACS Navigator is 1-800-ACS-2345.
  • Remember your loved ones cancer doesn’t end when their treatment ends. Your friend or loved one may have lingering side effects, such as low blood counts or fatigue. They may even look great after treatment but really not feel as great as you may think. Some days it takes great effort to put on their brave face and get out in the world. More than anything, remember that they are the same person despite having had cancer and yet they may have changed and become a new person.
  • The last tip is for the newly diagnosed survivor of cancer. You must learn that it is permissible for you to not do things during your treatments as you would normally on a daily basis.  This is a difficult time for you and you need to prioritize items that you feel are OK to let set for a while. You must also learn to accept others’ generous gift of time, energy or sustenance. Please allow others to give. Keep in mind that you are taking that other person’s ability of gifting away from them when you refuse their offer of kindness. Think how you would feel when someone turns your kind offer away.  

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who participated in the Yankton Community Relay for Life on Friday, June 28th at Riverside Park. It was a wonderful event.  This event is put on for survivors, and to honor their courage and strength in fighting this terrible disease. It is also held to bring increased awareness to others on how much there is still to do to prevent more of our friends, coworkers, neighbors and family from hearing the words: “I’m sorry, but you have cancer.”

Darla Gullikson, RN, OCN is the Director of the Avera Sacred Heart Cancer Center.