Updated: Aug 20
As a cancer patient, I want to share some advice from my experience. I am by no means an expert, all cancer patients, families, and needs are different. However, being on this end, being the one with cancer, I realised that things look different than they did when i was the friend offering support. I’ve helped friends going through cancer but until I was diagnosed myself, I really had no idea what they were going through or how to help. So I decided to give others with the big heart of a helper some ideas on how to really make a difference to a cancer patient and their family.
Many people want to help and feel like donating to a GoFundMe page just isn't enough. I’m going to give you the inside scoop that we cancer patients only talk about with other cancer patients, and no sugar coating like we do in real life. Everything from what would make our life during this battle easier, to what we wish people wouldn’t say but would do.
First, allow me to introduce myself.
My name is Tia. I'm a mother of 5 and grandmother of many. In Jan 2019 I went to the ER with what I thought was food poisoning and left diagnosed with Kidney Cancer and a mass in my breast. Over the next 3 months I had two surgeries, one to remove my entire left kidney and a breast lumpectomy. It was painful, the cancer, the surgery, and mostly the mental battle as I figured out what this cancer fight looked like for me. I had lost my job and health insurance a week prior to being diagnosed, and the ‘love of my life’ opted out of our 2 year relationship because me having cancer wasn't something he wanted to go through. It was one of the hardest times of my life, and that's a high bar.
Luckily I had a few friends who would call to check on me and a couple of my children helped as much as they could. One of which lived with me and took care of me, my dogs, and the house. I'm not sure how I would have survived without her or the one friend who would always listened without judgment or trying to ‘fix me’. I also have an amazing daughter, my youngest, who designed Ribbon Wear not only for me but for several other cancers, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. Having friends show love by wearing a shirt with your support ribbon really does make you feel less alone. She also donated many of her products to my cancer center for others going through cancer, which she knew would be a spirit boost to me as well.
The headrest thing for me to mentally deal with after diagnosis was the thought of how my youngest daughter would survive without me if she had to. Since then I have gone into remission, but my 7yo granddaughter and recently my 3yo great nephew have both begun a battle with leukemia. Cancer seems to have decided to stay around for a while, and we are ready for the fight.
From everyone suffering from cancer or a chronic illness, I’d like to start by saying ‘THANK YOU’.
Thank you for your support and for caring enough to want to help. Thank you for your gifts, donations and prayers. Thank you for taking the time to try and make things a little easier. Thank you for making us laugh, driving us to treatments, bringing flowers after surgery, and not getting offended by the ups and downs of our moods, or when we don't want your advice or visitors. You are our heroes.
With that in mind, I'll roll right into my candid advice on how you can help families with cancer. What you can say and do as well as the things you should keep in your head rather than let out of your mouth. With all due respect, just because you think it, doesn’t mean you should say it. Just because you saw it on facebook doesn’t mean it's valuable advice to give others. Of course, most of you know these things already, but you also know someone who may need to hear that advise. (Feel free to share)
Now that the blanket advice is covered let's get started.
Whether the person going through this battle is old or young, single or married, a single parent like me or a child and their family, there are a few really helpful things everyone can benefit from. I hope this list will help you find something you want to do that will greatly benefit your loved one.
One option available is to call or go to your loved ones treatment center and have them put a credit on the patients bill from your credit card. IE: medications, copays, surgery out of pocket, ins deductible etc. Someone did this for a friend of mine with breast cancer and I cannot tell you how much of a weight this took off of her shoulders. Some chemo medications are in the tens of thousands of dollars for each treatment! Even for people who have health insurance, co-pays and co-ins for visits to specialists and testing can be outrageous. These visits can often be several times a week, not to mention the hospital expenses. So if you are able to do this, it's an awesome way to help. You can even talk to a social worker and specify what the funds should be used for.
If the above is not an option for your budget and you know the family well, you can also put money on their electric bill, pay their phone bill, pay a month’s worth of rent or give them a gas card to help with all the visits to the doctor. My granddaughter's school gathered local restaurant gift cards to help with meals for her family and it has been super helpful. On days they are spending hours and hours at the hospital, they can grab dinner for the whole family on the way home and actually get to enjoy time together and relax.
There are many families who don't live near the hospital and/or loved ones are traveling far to be there with them. Many times people are spending a ton of money for hotel rooms near the hospital so the patient doesn’t have to travel the long road trip home just to go back in a day or two. One family I know has to get a hotel room for 2 weeks after surgeries so they are close enough to go for the 2 follow ups after being released. Their 2 year old and both her parents go straight to the hotel room when she is released from the hospital. I feel for them, the comfort of home is something I know I need after each treatment. For these families covering a day or more at their hotel room near the hospital is such an Amazing gift. I’ve even heard of family members loaning their RV so families could stay near the hospital during treatment instead of the dreaded long drive home during some of the sickest days of your life.
Get creative with your giving.
I know it's hard to know what someone may need when you haven’t been in their shoes, but so many people like you come up with things that are so considerate and thoughtful it brings tears to my eyes just to think of it. You don't have to be Ellen to be kind and give from the heart.
Now for the mental and emotional support. First let me say we are very happy you care, like super grateful for your concern and love. We know you have a lot of questions and those questions come from love for us. We love you for it. Here’s what you may not know, we don't always want to talk about our illness. Once you are diagnosed with cancer or another chronic illness, it seems that’s all people want to talk about. We become ‘the person with cancer’ and that’s not who we are, it's just what we're going through. So ask how we are doing, that’s so thoughtful of you, but let us decide what we want to share today. If we try to talk about something else, go with it. Take the conversation on a path that will take us out of our illness bubble. I promise you, if you let your friend or loved one who is battling an illness take the lead in the direction of the conversation, they will give you more information as soon as they are ready. We spend really heavy days talking to medical staff and some days we just can't handle the constant questions from everyone else along with it. It's great to show concern but dont push. We won't leave you in the dark, we don't want you to worry. Just give us the time we need to be mentally ready to discuss it. Other days we will need to tell you about what we are going through, we will want someone to listen and care without judgment or even advice. But some days we just want to hear about your son's football game, and your funny stories or just sit together and not talk at all. Take cues from your loved one and make sure they know your shoulder is always available.
Secondly, this is a big one, we know you want to help, please don't be offended by this, but we don't want to hear about your ‘cure’ ideas. We know you have done your research and have suggestions on how we can get healthy. We know because you are the 108th person this week to tell us to give up sugar, Starbucks causes cancer, it was the energy drinks, you read cancer comes from hair dye, ‘only sinners get cancer REPENT!’, and that we can be healed with whatever product the random FB ‘friend’ is selling.
‘Eating 4 apricot seeds upside down for 57 days cured a girl at work’s sister.’
‘You can be cured by eating only leafy greens, sardines and avocados for a month’, and so on and so on. Yes, we know there is a ‘secret conspiracy by big pharma not to tell us what cures cancer so they can take all our money for chemo’. But trust me, nothing you tell us is going to be new info, WE are the ones who have cancer! We have researched absolutely everything about our condition. We have joined support groups for our specific type of cancer/condition. We have spoken to every type of healer in the universe. We have medical nutritionists, wellness doctors, holistic practitioners, oncologists, cardiologists, google and Jesus Christ himself. We have already decided what we are willing to do to survive. We have done the research too, heard more suggestions than we want and sometimes it sounds like you're blaming us for the cancer. You are so thoughtful and kind to try and help up fight this. But If you yourself have never had the exact same health condition as your loved one and were healed by your suggestion, I'd like to suggest you print the advice and just leave it for your friend or family member so they can read it if and when they are up for it. We love you and love that you want to help, we are just completely mentally and emotionally overwhelmed and being bombarded with too much well intended advice.
Cancer hurts physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.
Lastly, I had a friend who battled breast cancer. She was brave and beautiful. We love her very much and did everything we could to help her through. I remember the day we went to lunch and she told me she found a large lump in her breast. She was scared to find out what it was and didn't want to go get it checked out. Inside, she knew it was cancer that day at lunch but it was confirmed soon after, she indeed had breast cancer.
She was having a very hard time in life already with some major life changes. And for her, losing her breast was even harder than the sickness from chemo. But it was when she lost all her hair that I saw her at her breaking point. The way people looked at her with despair was absolutely breaking her. Hell it was breaking me for her. She told me she felt “humiliated having people see her like this and the wigs don't help”.
I remember us walking into a client’s business who didn’t know what was going on and he said “what the hell did you do to your hair?’. I melted as she tried not to cry.
Well this long story is just to say, when you see someone in a wig, or bald, and/or with a medical mask on or anything else out of the ‘norm’ please don't ask about it, don't stare, don't comment, just remember you are talking to the person who is INSIDE the body, not a person who IS their body. Expose your children to books and movies with people of all types, including people with illness, so they don't shriek when they see us. Don’t get on to them if they do though, they're just kids and it makes us feel worse for being the reason they were reprimanded.
We, most of us (I’m guessing), love children and babies. However even if we look well, our immune system may be compromised and children usually have more germs than adults because they love touching things and hugging their friends who touch things. So please take no offense when we cant have child visitors, If your kids have a runny nose or any possible sign of being sick or having ‘allergies’ keep them at home, don't bring them around us. What's just a ‘cold’ to you could be deadly to someone without the ability to fight it off.
Lastly, I made a list of the top items on the ‘make this fight easier’ list. I tried to link each item to the best place to purchase. Most are available on Amazon since they have some of the best prices on these products. Plus you can have it shipped directly to the home of the person you are helping if you choose.
If you can, schedule a trip to do some light housekeeping for the cancer family while they are at the doctor or getting treatments. You would be surprised how much it lowers stress levels to have a clean house. Just having the dishes done, dusting, laundry or mopping floors can be the best medicine for someone who is sick. Plus with our immune systems gone, having a clean house helps us avoid unnecessary germs. You can even make a shared schedule for the family where friends and neighbors can chip in. ‘there’s an app for that’.
Fresh fruit/veggie delivery:
Obviously you can send groceries from several places now with all the services out there. However, I’m going to link a gift card for the one I would choose for myself which is Whole Foods. If there is a Whole Foods near your loved one, they can order directly from Amazon and have fresh whole foods delivered to them. If your loved one is going through cancer treatment, sometimes they can't have meals cooked outside the home without taking a big risk of getting sick.
A subscription to Netflix, Hulu or AppleTV: When we are going through treatments or recovering from surgery, most of the time we are on house arrest. Being at home can be boring! So a thoughtful gift for your loved one could be a subscription to your favorite streaming platform. Then give them suggestions on shows to watch, maybe include the one you are loving right now so y’all have something new to talk about other than their illness.
Blanket: When I was in the hospital recovering from having the cancer and my left kidney removed, my son and his lovely girlfriend brought me a blanket. I had a big warm blanket that felt like love and smelled like home. (He got it at Target if that tells you anything about how my home is decorated.) Anyway the blanket felt like a blanket of love and even when I was alone at the hospital I felt love from that blanket. You would be surprised how little things can offer so much support.
Pillow: This is both a warm and fuzzy gift as well as a functional gift. If your loved one is going to have a port for treatment, they are going to be sore and have to try to get rest/sleep with that port in for a long time. Having a pillow to prop your arm up on makes it so much easier to get in a position to sleep without the port causing you discomfort. Having a gifted pillow for this does double work as it hugs us back with your thoughtfulness. (Thank you sis for my pillow <3)
Gift Card for some retail therapy: This may sound trivial but if you could see my granddaughters face when amazon pulls up to her house when she has been stuck indoors, staring out at the other kids playing and riding bikes, you would understand. Just yesterday she said it must've been her ‘lucky day’ because she received 2 amazon gifts! She's battling cancer at age 7 but feels ‘lucky’ because she got an amazon gift. Usually while going through treatments. All of our money is going to medical bills so we can’t do any shopping therapy anymore, even though now is probably when we need it most. If you just can't decide what gift would be best for your loved one, consider giving them retail therapy with an Amazon gift card. They can shop from the treatment center or from the couch, whenever they are up for it. We had my granddaughter build an amazon wishlist and shared it with friends and family so she has something to look forward to on those long days at home between treatments.
Headphones: Hospitals are noisy and treatments are long and boring. The gift of noise cancelling headphones can help your loved one escape into audiobooks, podcasts or their favorite music without hearing all the machines around them. There are so many options to choose from, one for every budget. I linked the ones I've heard have the best sound quality and are very comfortable. They also have Prime, which is the only way I shop now.
Books: Books are the BEST! I get so lost in books that for a few minutes I forget where I am and what I'm going through. There are so many great ones out right now too! I love finding newer releases by lesser known authors and finding one I can completely fall out of reality with. Normally I like self help books too but while going through cancer reading about self help,’ wasn't helpful. However scaping with a creative fantasy novel was. My favorite right now is Wrath/Patience Event Horizon Series, Book 1.
Guided Journals are amazing!! Sure some days I just need a blank page and to write without restriction. But on really rough days, when I have no inspiration, a guided journal pulls the words and emotions right out of me. A guided journal leads you through questions about your life, your legacy, your memorable moments, and things your loved ones will love reading about you 70 years from now. It’s such a neat gift and can be passed down for generations. When you have cancer or a chronic illness you are faced with your mortality. As a mother and grandmother I think about what I have taught my children that they will teach their own. I wonder if they will remember how funny I am or my favorite recipes. The guided journal is a place where I can put it all and hope they will continue to pass it on. They can also write their own and give it to the person who is ill. I loved reading the guided journal my grandkids filled out, although I didn’t know ‘pickles’ and ‘shark’ could be the answer to so many questions.
For those who want to do or can spend a little more:
Apple Watch: I know this is not what you would expect to see on this list but it has a very important role and can be live saving for some patients. It's pretty much the new panic button for those needing it. With Apple’s new technology the watch can detect a hard fall among other things like heart rate. When it detects a hard fall or other emergency it can alert your loved ones so they can go check on you. It also will call 911 and give them your location if you don't respond after a hard fall is detected! Forget the button around the neck, an Apple Watch has your loved one covered. It will be keeping a close eye on them when you cant.
Roomba: Sweeping and vacuuming doesn’t seem hard until you barely have the strength to brush your teeth. Then you cry because you know the floors need to be clean, it's better for your health, but you don't have the strength to clean them. Your friends have all said ‘call if you need something’, but how humiliating is it to ask someone to come sweep your floor or do your dishes. Why don't we have robots for that yet? Oh wait, it’s 2020, we do!! The IRobot Roomba might not be able to do the dishes but just keeping the floor swept is such a great relief. What a happy day it will be when that stress of dirty floors is over!
Quite family photo sesh: Yes I mean a photo session. I know this is morbid but who knows how long any of us have left on this planet. Having a photographer come to the house or even the hospital and take family photos is priceless. I’m not going to go into detail on this because I don't want to cry on my keyboard, so just think about how meaningful it would be to have one last photo session with a loved one right before they died. That's what this means to us, even if we have every intention of living.
Ninja Foodi all in one grill: This Ninja can grill, air fry, pressure cook, and slow cook all in one! One ‘pan’, one thing to clean, no standing over the stove, no awful grease in our food. When your energy is low from fighting illness or from tending to a loved one fighting illness, this Ninja is your best friend. Easy quick meals are your new best friend!
I hope this information helps you with how you can help in a situation where none of us have any control. When you hear of a child or a friend diagnosed with cancer you may want to run and hug them tightly, but they may need time alone for a few days to soak it all in. You may want to offer advice but they aren't ready to hear it. This article is to inspire useful ideas from someone whos been there, but the most important thing to us is that you CARE. So again, thank you.
Cancer battles can last months or years for some (3-5 years for my granddaughter and great nephew), and a lifetime for others. Your kindness and support makes a world of difference, so please, be patient with us and stay for the long fight. Everyone's life keeps going and after the first few months and support tapers off. We need people like you, people who really care,to stay with us through it all, no matter how long the road is. Thank you for being our angels, our rock, and for loaning us your faith when ours is weak.