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

One of the most common problems when trying to help a person with cancer is knowing where to start. If you want to help, but don’t know what to do first, this section has some tips and advice.

It’s important to first find out if your help is wanted and what kind of help is needed. Once you know your help is wanted, you can offer to help with one of the things they need. It’s always good to try to be specific. 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. Try not to take this personally. They might not be ready to accept help yet or might wish to remain independent. You could make the offer again at a later date 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.

Decide what you can do 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.

Here are some suggestions of things you could do to help:

  • Cook for them – taking them pre-cooked, frozen meals may be welcome.
  • Make meals for other family members.
  • Help around the house with cleaning or in the garden.
  • Take the children out for the day, to give the person some rest or time with their partner.
  • Babysit so that their partner can visit them in hospital.
  • Have groceries, such as bread and milk, or flowers waiting for them at home when they come out of hospital – something as small as this could make a big difference to them.
  • Give family members a lift to and from hospital.

Some friends were great at doing the practical things I was struggling with, like taking the children to school, cooking, and cleaning. This meant I had energy to do things with my family.


Start with the small things

Starting small to begin with and offering to do one or two practical things that your relative or friend has mentioned can often help. 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.

If you’ve offered to cook meals, remember that people with cancer may have a small appetite or 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 also help.

Spending 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.

Going to appointments

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 may forget 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:

  • Offer to write down the questions they want to ask.
  • During the appointment, avoid speaking on behalf of your relative or friend unless they ask you to – otherwise they may forget what they wanted 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.
  • 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.

Helping during and after appointments

Your relative or friend may find it difficult to take in information, especially if they’re given bad news. Sometimes the shock of this makes a person unable to talk or think clearly for a short time. This could be a good time, with their permission, to ask the questions you know they wanted to ask. You can also make sure to write down a contact number for the Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) or consultant, in case your friend or relative wants to ask further questions or discuss what they have been told again at a later date.

You can remind them afterwards of what the doctor said. Your relative or friend may find it helps if you listen to them as they think about the choices they need to make. You may also want to read through any written information you’ve been given. Remember to check with your relative or friend if they want to know this information first.

You can also call our support line on 0808 808 00 00 to discuss any treatment choices and to ask for more information.

You may 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.

During chemotherapy, I often can’t face eating what I’ve bought or want something I don’t have. It makes all the difference when friends bring me those crumpets I suddenly crave!


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, if your relative or friend agrees to this. For example, you could set up a rota to cook meals or to drive them to hospital appointments.

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.

You can find more ideas on ways to help your relative or friend, on our website.

Back to If someone has cancer

Keeping in touch

There are lots of ways you can keep in touch with your loved one.

How to be a good listener

Listening carefully to your relative or friend will give them support and help you understand their needs better.

Things to avoid saying

Understanding things that might be unhelpful to say can make you more confident about talking with someone who has cancer.

Looking after yourself

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