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What to Do & Say When Someone you love is Diagnosed with Cancer

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An Individual doesn’t get cancer, a Family gets cancer.

I didn’t know how true this statement was until one particular person in my family told us the devastating news. First thought, what can I do, what should I say, what shouldn’t I say? How can I help someone with cancer?

Then, as the realization set in it occurred to me, we’re over 1,200 miles away, with jobs/careers, kids, a house to maintain. We can’t just drop everything and go, and even if we did, what could we do? So, here’s what I’ve learned during this journey . . .


What to Expect:

The first step is understanding what you can expect to see your loved one go through physically. Some of the following symptoms are due to cancer itself and some are due to the side effects of the treatment. Just as each person is unique, so are the variety of symptoms they may endure. Here are the most frequent and common:

  • Hair loss, including eyebrows and eyelashes
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Appetite loss or increase
  • Changes in how things taste or smell
  • Extreme tiredness (known as fatigue)
  • Pale skin and lips, or changes in skin color
  • Disfigurement (such as the loss of a limb or a breast or impotence)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Problems with sleep
  • Poor concentration (often referred to as chemo brain)

Fatigue is most often the most overwhelming and difficult side effect to cope with both during and after treatment as it can linger for many months after treatments end.

Emotional Changes:

People react differently to the news, some immediately go into “Fight” mode, ready to battle cancer, some grieve, each person is vastly different, but what I can tell you is that these emotional reactions can literally change hour by hour, and they vacillate between each of the following:

  • Anger
  • A sense of lack of control
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Mood swings
  • Uncertainty
  • Much stronger and more intense feelings
  • A sense of being disconnected or isolated from others
  • Loneliness
  • Resentment

What Not to Say

It may be tempting to say things like, “I understand how you feel” or “I know what you’re going through”, unless you literally just went through it yourself, personally, please don’t say these things. You don’t know, You don’t understand, you didn’t live it, you aren’t fighting it- and even if you’ve had cancer, yours is not the same.

Everyone’s journey is different, each has their own difficulties. Also, don’t ask, “what can I do” because that leaves them to think of ways you can help. They have enough to think about.

What You Should Say:

Here are some things you CAN and Should say,

  • How are you feeling?
  • I’m not sure what to say right now, but I care and I’m here for you.
  • I’m sorry you’re going through this.
  • I’m here for you if you’d like to talk.

Encouragement is good as well, but those enduring cancers have very real fears, concerns, and sad feelings. Telling a cancer patient to “Stay Positive” and “Be Happy” is a kick in the face.

Keep in mind saying things like, “You’re so Brave” or “You’re so Strong” can actually put unnecessary pressure on them to be strong for everyone else when they’re not really up to it.Text (or) email the caregivers regularly, let them know you’re thinking of them, that you’re available if they need or want to talk, that they have a support system in you.

Add a “No Need to respond” to the end of your message, often they appreciate hearing from you, but don’t want to feel obligated to respond.

How You Can Help>

Instead of asking “What can I do” or “Call me if you need something” (which, by the way, no one will ever do!) here are some ways you can help:

  • Send or prepare a meal. Arrange a schedule of meal delivery. There is an amazing service called “Meal Train” in which you can arrange for one meal a day to be dropped off to the home of the patient, even from 1,200 miles away! This service is FREE and people donate the meals, you can also volunteer in your area to prepare and donate meals as well.
    Be aware that patients undergoing Chemo have dietary restrictions, such as not eating Fresh Vegetables!
  • Meal Scheduling is another resource that allows friends & family to coordinate meals, but be aware this one is not inexpensive, it runs about the cost of a Restaurant meal.
  • Offer to help with childcare. Arrange a schedule of daycare pick-ups.
  • Offer a ride to and from treatment appointments, often times immediate family members are overwhelmed with trying to maintain work/career
  • Help run errands, grocery shopping, dry cleaning, dog walking, house cleaning, lawn maintenance, etc
  • Offer to take their phone calls if they are tired and need to rest.
  • Coordinate visits by groups, or coordinate sending cards, flowers, or gifts. There’s a wonderful free resource known at Lotsa Helping Hands that makes coordinating schedules, reminders, and dates easy.
  • If they have unanswered questions about cancer, offer to research it for them or refer them to the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.
  • Call before visiting, be understanding if they aren’t up for company or if, while visiting, they ask you to leave.

If the person agrees, plan a party when treatment is finished or on anniversary dates. Always check with them first before making party plans, including showing them the list of those to be invited, some want to celebrate, others want to forget!

Gift Ideas they can really Use

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Laughter truly is the best medicine, it literally releases Endorphins and is a wonderful, natural coping mechanism. Sharing funny stories, memes or just finding humor in everyday life can help keep a person’s spirits up. If the person loves a particular tv series, consider getting them the entire series on disc. It can help them through the lulls when they don’t have visitors, provide entertainment and much-needed laughter, or just keep their mind occupied.

Gift Cards

Cancer is a financial drain regardless of whether you have great health insurance or not, suddenly you need items you never needed before and you go through them rapidly. Gift cards for local grocery stores, pharmacies, Amazon, etc are helpful.

The Often Overlooked Little Things:

Little things that you wouldn’t normally think about now become much more prominent, like laundry for instance. Cancer patients undergoing chemo or radiation are often told NOT to reuse towels, including hand towels, which means they go through an overwhelming amount of laundry. Having a case of select-a-size paper towels can help reduce the load on the caregiver in the house.

Unscented Hand Sanitizer

A family’s best friend. Germs can kill those with a weakened immune system, so having unscented sanitizers around the house, in vehicles, in purses and pockets, etc can literally be a lifesaver.

Lotion & Chapstick

These two items are often thought about during the winter months when it’s dry, but regardless of the time of year, when a person is enduring cancer treatment having normal dry skin can lead to painful blisters. Eucerin Skin Calming Daily Moisturizer is very effective with low odor for keeping the skin hydrated.


Another highly recommended cream is The Body Shop Aloe Butter. Chemotherapy often causes damage to nails to the point where they can get dark, brittle or even fall off entirely. This cream works wonders for protecting the skin and nails and again, it’s unscented.

Those undergoing treatments are hypersensitive to fragrances, which can increase nausea and make scents seem more intense.


Aquaphor Lip Repair is an unscented hydrating lip repair treatment that provides instant relief.


Miracle Berry- Synsepalum dulcificum

Miracle berry is a plant that, when consumed, causes sour tasting foods to taste sweet. It also negates the lingering metallic taste that a person undergoing chemo may be experiencing. The berries themselves are low sugar and contain a glycoprotein molecule with carbohydrate chains known as Miraculin.


As the fleshy part of the fruit is consumed, the miraculin binds to the taste buds on the tongue, causing the subsequent foods that are consumed to taste sweet instead of sour. The effect lasts about 30 minutes before it is naturally washed away by saliva.

In short, there are a lot of things you can do to help support a loved one through this tumultuous time in their lives. We’d love to hear your suggestions and thoughts in the comments below as well.

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