What you can do to help

You may be keen to help a person with cancer, but unsure where to start.

First, find out whether your help is needed. You may have to ask for some basic information about your relative or friend’s illness so you can offer the right support. Think about a day in their life and what they could need at each stage. Remember, their needs may change over time.

Your own skills and circumstances will affect what support you can provide. Consider what you’re good at. Small, practical things such as giving a lift or picking up some information may be the best starting point. Simply spending time together, even a regular short visit, can also help.

People often feel anxious before seeing a doctor. You may want to offer support before an appointment. Help them write or prioritise their questions to prepare. If they ask you to go with them, listen carefully to what the doctor says so that nothing is missed. It may help to take notes.

Remember to get support yourself if you need it.

Offering to help a person with cancer

One of the most common problems when trying to help a person with cancer is knowing where to start. 

It’s important to first find out whether or not your help is needed and also exactly what is wanted. If you’re the parent or partner of someone with cancer, you may not need to ask them what they need. Once you know if your help is wanted, you can offer to help with one of the things they need. It helps to be specific, so for example, rather than saying, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do.’ you could ask,

  • ‘Shall I do the shopping?’
  • ‘Would you like me to pick up the children from school?’

You can also say that you’ll keep in touch to see if there are other things you can help with.

Some people find it hard to accept support even if they need it. This means that your offer may be refused. Although this may hurt your feelings, it’s worth remembering that this is not about some failing in you; it’s more likely to be because they aren’t ready to accept help yet or about their sense of pride and their wish to be independent. You could make the offer again at a later date, when they may be more able to accept your help. Or you could let them know that you’re available if they ever need any support. Don’t pester your relative or friend into accepting your help – some people are happy to do things on their own.

What do you need to know?

You may need to know a bit about your relative or friends illness so you can give them the support you’ve been asked for. But you may only need basic information. So you may need to ask:

  • ‘Do you have pain that makes it harder for you to move?’
  • ‘If you get breathless, which medicine should I bring you?’
  • ‘If you’re going to be tired for a few weeks after your radiotherapy, would you like help with housework, childcare or gardening?’

Some people are very private and don’t want other people to know about their cancer. You may need to be very tactful in finding out what they need without talking about the actual illness. It’s natural to feel curious about a person’s illness, but it’s equally important to respect their privacy. If someone with cancer finds questions from visitors too intrusive, they may simply stop talking about anything personal.

On the other hand, your relative or friend may be open about their cancer. They may even ask you to go with them to an outpatient clinic to help them with questions they want to ask the doctor.

What does a person with cancer need?

This applies to the rest of the family as well as the person who is ill. Remember their needs will vary as the situation changes. If a person has serious physical problems, these are some questions you may ask yourself:

  • Who is going to look after them during the day?
  • Can they get from their bed to the toilet?
  • Can they prepare their own meals?
  • Do they need medicines that they can’t take themselves?

It’s important to think of your loved one’s family members, too.

  • Are there children who need to be taken to and from school?
  • Is their partner medically fit or are there things that they need help with?
  • Is their home suitable for looking after someone or do any changes need to be made?
  • Is there equipment that could help the person to do things more easily?
  • Where can they get financial help if necessary?
  • Are there other people close to the person with cancer who also need support?

You can check what’s needed by going through a day in the life of your relative or friend and thinking about what they might need at each stage.

Deciding what you can and want to do

Begin by considering what you’re good at. You probably have many skills that will be helpful when it comes to supporting your relative or friend.

  • Can you cook for them? Taking them pre-cooked, frozen meals may be welcome. Can you make meals for other family members?
  • Can you help around the house with cleaning or in the garden by mowing the lawn or tending to plants? If your relative or friend needs furniture rearranged (for instance, so they can sleep on the ground floor because they can’t manage the stairs), could you help them do it? If you’re unable to do so, could you find someone else who could help?
  • Can you take the children out for the day to give the couple some time together?
  • Can you babysit, so that their partner can visit them in hospital?
  • Can you get relevant booklets or information for them?
  • Can you find CDs or DVDs that they like?
  • Will there be groceries (such as bread and milk) or flowers at home when the person gets out of hospital? Something as small as this could make a big difference to them.
  • Could you give family members a lift to and from hospital?

Start with small, practical things

It may help to start small and just offer one or two practical things that you know your loved one or friend has mentioned. That way, they won’t feel embarrassed or overwhelmed by the attention. It’s important that you only offer to do what you can manage and don’t aim to do too much. It may need a little thought and some understanding of what your relative or friend needs or likes.

Here is an example:

David used to get his hair cut every week. It wasn’t a big thing, but it was part of his regular routine. When he was in hospital, his friend Joseph arranged for the hospital barber to call weekly. It was a nice and thoughtful touch.

If you’ve offered to cook meals, remember that people with cancer often have a small appetite and may find that things taste differently because of treatment. If they don’t eat what you’ve prepared, it’s not an insult to your cooking but simply an effect of their illness. You could try asking them if there’s any particular food that they enjoy. Putting small portions on a smaller plate may help, too.

Spend time together

It can help to spend regular time with your relative or friend. Think about the time you can realistically spend with them and try to be reliable. Remember that even a short visit on a regular basis will be something they can look forward to.

Involve other people

Like everyone else you have your limits. There’s always something more that could be done, but it’s impossible to do everything. This is why it’s useful to involve other people where possible. For example, you could set up a rota to cook meals, drive someone to hospital or sit with someone who is seriously ill. You may be able to find people with skills you don’t have – for example, someone else may be able to do jobs such as gardening or DIY.

Going to a cancer clinic

People with cancer are often encouraged to take someone with them when they see the doctor or nurse. They often feel anxious about seeing the doctor and forget the questions they were going to ask. If they ask you to be there with them, you could offer to help them prepare for the appointment. You may find the following suggestions useful:

  • Ask them to write down the questions they want to ask.
  • Help them prioritise their questions. Put the two or three most important questions at the top of the list in case time with the doctor is limited.
  • During the appointment, avoid speaking on behalf of your relative or friend unless they ask you to. Otherwise they may lose the thread of what they want to say.
  • Listen carefully to the information and answers the doctor gives. It may help to take notes or ask the doctor if you can record the conversation so that nothing they say is missed.
  • Suggest to your relative or friend that they ask the doctor for the contact details of a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) or other healthcare professional who specialises in giving information and supporting people with cancer.
  • Ask if there’s any written information available to help you and your relative or friend understand more about their cancer type and its treatment.

The person may find it difficult to take in all the information, especially if they’re given bad news. Sometimes the shock of this makes a person ‘freeze’, and they may be temporarily unable to talk or think clearly. This could be a good time to step in and, with their permission, ask the questions you know they wanted to ask.

Afterwards, when they’ve recovered, you can remind them of what the doctor said and discuss any choices your relative or friend may need to make. You may also want to take some time to read through any written information you’ve been given. Remember that you can also contact the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 to discuss any treatment choices.

You may find that you also feel upset by the news given to your family member or friend. Supporting someone when you feel upset can be hard, so it’s important to get support for yourself.

Back to If someone has cancer

Talking and listening

Talking and listening can help your loved one make sense of difficult experiences.

How to talk

If your friend or relative has cancer, talking openly will help you understand their experience and build mutual trust.

Looking after yourself

Supporting a person with cancer can be both rewarding and demanding. Make sure you have the support you need.