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Cancer has been on my mind this week.
It’s time for my checkup with the oncologist, and visiting the building where I spent so much time four years ago brings back all the old feelings. There’s also the anxiety that comes with wondering if this is the time my blood tests will show something wonky and the whole nightmare will start all over again.
This afternoon while I was sitting around feeling anxious for myself, I was contacted twice for advice regarding new cancer diagnoses. One request was from a new patient who wanted to know what to expect, and one was from the friend of a new patient who wondered what she could do to help. It got me to thinking about all the things that I was glad to have when I was sick and all the many kindnesses that friends, family, and even strangers showed me when I was in treatment.
If someone you care about has recently been diagnosed and you don’t know how to help, read on to find some ideas.
61 Ways to Help a Friend with Breast Cancer
Share Some Quality Time:
- Make a date at her house to watch a show, play a board game, or do something else low- key.
- Check in with her consistently—consider setting a calendar alert. Send short notes or texts that don’t require a response just to let her know you’re thinking of her.
- Sit with her during chemo if she wants the company and the treatment facility allows it.
- Make a date to eat some pot brownies or smoke out a little. (If it’s legal in your state, of course).
- Come over for some wine and gossip and don’t ask her how she’s feeling. Let it be a normal hang out.
- Don’t forget her. Cancer treatment often lasts for several months. Be present after the flurry of the initial diagnosis has died down.
- Plan a FaceTime or Skype date if you live far away.
- Start an online game that you can play regularly like Yahtzee or Words with Friends.
- Take her for a walk around the block.
- Take her for a drive to see something beautiful. One of my most cherished memories is of going with a dear friend to see a seemingly endless field of sunflowers in bloom.
Things to consider when you visit:
- Don’t show up unannounced. Consider meeting online instead of in person. Be sensitive to the fact that she might be embarrassed about the state of her house, unhappy with her appearance, or just plain feeling yucky.
- Bring a snack or treat to share if you do visit so she doesn’t have to play hostess.
- Ask questions, and understand that she might not want to talk. Be prepared for the fact that she also might share some pretty dark feelings.
- Talk to her about something other than cancer, too—do you need advice or an opinion about something?
- Don’t give her fake compliments like, “you don’t even look sick”.
- Minimize the fighting narrative. It gets kind of old being urged to ‘keep fighting’, ‘stay positive’, and ‘kick cancer’s ass’. She might not want to feel like she has to be strong.
- Don’t tell her that you’re sure she’s going to be fine. She’s likely not sure, and there are no guarantees.
- Don’t give your opinion on her treatment plan (suggest she consider a double mastectomy instead of a single, for instance).
- Don’t offer advice on stuff like diet or alternative therapies.
- Don’t ask her why she thinks she got sick.
- Don’t talk about people you know that died of cancer. Yes, this one seems obvious, but you’d be surprised…
Help her with tasks that need to be done:
- Offer specific things you can do rather than vaguely offering to help. She doesn’t know what she needs.
- Show up (not unannounced, of course) and tell her you’re “here to do a task”. Have some suggestions in mind in case she tries to say she doesn’t need anything.
- Help her tidy up, throw in a load of laundry, or cook dinner while you’re over for a visit.
- Arrange for someone to regularly clean her home. The organization “Cleaning for a Reason” provides cleaning services for free to women undergoing treatment. You can visit cleaningforareason.org to find participating maid services in her area.
- Arrange for meals to be delivered to her house. The service Meal Train makes meal sign up easy, and the Plus Plan lets you help arrange other things she might need, too, such as services and financial contributions.
Pro Tips When Setting Up/Participating in a Meal Plan:
- Before preparing food, ask if she or her family members have dietary restrictions.
- Ask how many people you should plan to feed. Your friend might have some extra help in the house in addition to the people that regularly live there.
- Ask if any food is sounding particularly good or particularly unappetizing while she’s undergoing treatment.
- Ask if her husband or kids have a favorite food. They need a little love, too.
- Ask if she’d like to visit with you when you drop off the food, and realize the answer may be no.
- Send the food in containers that won’t need to be returned to you.
- Make sure that meals aren’t delivered every day so that the family isn’t overwhelmed by leftovers.
Help her with more tasks that need to be done:
- Take her kids for a play date.
- Help get her child to or from school.
- Take her child to a music lesson or sports practice.
- Drive her to chemo or radiation treatments.
- Run an errand for her or her caregiver.
- Walk her dog.
- Mow her lawn or tend her garden. (Or hire someone to do it).
- Grab books from the library for her or take them back.
- Text her from the grocery store to see if she needs anything.
- If you’re her coworker, see if you can share your sick time.
- Talk to her closest caregiver about what she might need that you’ve missed.
- Give that caregiver a break for a few hours if they need it.
Get her something nice:
- If she can receive flowers, send her a bunch. Be sure to check, because if her immune system is too weak, flowers are a health risk that isn’t allowed.
- Knit, crochet, or use the fleece-tying method to make her a blanket to take along to chemo. The infusions she gets there will likely make her feel cold.
- Knit, crochet, or buy her a cap to wear.
- Bring her a cancer-fighting superfood.
- Knit, crochet, or buy a pair of soft socks to wear.
- Get her some beautiful pjs or a soft robe to snuggle in.
- Send her a card. These by Emily McDowell Studio are great.
- Get her a good water bottle. She needs to drink a ton of water to get the chemo out of her system. One like this with a fruit infuser is a good idea, as sometimes even plain water tastes yucky when you’re getting chemo.
- Send her something funny to read every day. Cakewrecks never fails to deliver a laugh as far as I’m concerned.
- Give her a restaurant gift card.
- Give her an iTunes gift card and a list of some great games, music, tv shows, or apps you think she’d like.
- Make her a playlist of songs—you might choose ones that hold special memories for the two of you, ones that you think she hasn’t heard yet, ones that are inspirational, or ones that are nice and angry.
- Get her a copy of Belleruth Naperstek’s Cancer Meditations.
- Get her a vial of Anistasia’s Dipbrow—the absolute best filler I found to paint on missing eyebrows.
- Send her some lemon drops. They really help with dry mouth and the nasty, metallic taste that sometimes comes along with chemo.
- Send her some chamomile or ginger tea.
- Get her some Trader Joe’s Gingermints or ginger candies to help with nausea.
- Send her a piece of jewelry with an inspirational saying.
- Send her an Amazon gift card so she can have things that she needs sent right to the house.
- Send her some ideas for podcasts to listen to.
- Send her some magazines to take to chemo.
- Send a mobile masseuse for a gift massage. Visit The Society for Oncology Massage to locate therapists in your area who specialize in treating those with cancer.
- Get her some useful toiletries. Cereve lotion, Biotene mouthwash, Chapstick, hand sanitizer, and Ocean nasal spray are some that I found helpful.
- Get her a cute tote bag to take with her to chemo.
- Get her a good sunscreen. Skin is more photosensitive during chemo and radiation. You’ll want to choose something like this that is mineral-based.
- Get her some Epsom salts to help with muscle aches and other discomforts. Dr. Teals Lavender are my favorite.
- Get her a copy of Radical Remission by Kelly A. Turner—my absolute favorite cancer book.
- Get her a journal. This one is lovely.
- Gift an Uber or Lyft gift certificate if you can’t give her a ride personally.
- Get her a gas card. I had at least one appointment each week during chemo and an appointment every weekday during radiation. I was fortunate that treatment was around the corner, but a lot of people travel dozens of miles or more for treatment.
- Get her an adult coloring book. You can choose from designs that are beautiful, funny, inspirational, or a little bit R-rated.
Do something to honor her:
- Donate some hair to Locks of Love in her honor.
- Do a walk in her honor. The Charity Walks Blog maintains a great list of walkathons.
- Donate some money to a cancer charity in her name. Charity Navigator, a tool that evaluates nearly two million charities, lists its picks for some of the top cancer charities here.
Although it pains me to say it, since one in eight women are afflicted with breast cancer, chances are good that sooner or later, you or someone you love will be afflicted with the disease. I hope that when the time comes, this list will help give you some ideas of things to request if you need help, or give you some ideas of where to start if you want to provide help.
I know I’ve forgotten some things.
Please comment below with more ideas!
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