How to help a family dealing with cancer and make a real difference. Real ways to help that won't overwhelm the family or you.
Do you know what is an amazing gift but can also be incredibly overwhelming during a cancer battle? People wanting to help.
When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, people came out of the woodwork to show love and support. Every day we would get phone calls, visitors, and cards in the mail that all asked the same questions…
- “Do you need anything?”
- “What can I do to help?”
- “What would make this easier for you?”
I always felt like…
“Ummmmm… I honestly have no idea.”
I’m not sure what we need. I don’t know how you can help. I do know, NOTHING will make this easier.
We did need help. We needed TONS of help along the way.
But, I had no idea what to say to people who asked us how they could help.
How to help a family dealing with cancer is complicated.
The reality is, they’re flying by the seat of their pants, with no clue what they’re doing. They have no idea what’s coming down the pike and they’re just trying to survive the day-to-day chaos.
That’s exactly what it feels like.
Here’s the truth. When you’re a family battling cancer with someone you love, you have no idea what you need and NO time at all to figure it out.
Here are some incredible ways that people helped my family when the world was falling down around us and we had no idea what we needed.
How to Help a Family Dealing With Cancer…
Don’t ask “what can I do?”
Just say something like.
“Hey! I’m dropping off dinner tonight.” “You can freeze it If you already have something ready.” “I just need to know if you have any food allergies or special dietary needs I should be aware of?”
“Hey! I just wanted to let you know that the snowstorm tonight is supposed to be about 5 inches.” “My husband is going to stop by tomorrow morning and shovel and salt your walkways.” “I just didn’t want him to surprise you.”
Now, you’ve made the situation EASY for them.
- They don’t need to do anything.
- They can stop worrying about how they’re going to deal with the snowstorm or what to eat for dinner.
- And, they can focus their energy on something that really matters.
Cancer takes a ton of time and energy. But, things fall to the wayside when cancer becomes the priority.
This family probably already had a busy life when this horrific illness descended on them and now things have become 50x more intense.
Are you handy? That’s a tremendous way how to help a family dealing with cancer…
- Mow the Lawn
- Rake Leaves
- Shovel Snow
- Take out the Garbage
- Salt the Driveway
- Offer to install grab bars around the house, or in the shower. (This can be a game-changer if it’s necessary!)
- Fix things that are broken.
- Change a light bulb.
You’d be surprised how many things don’t get done when you head into a battle of this magnitude. There’s literally no extra time for the things that used to matter.
For many people, including us… Cancer treatment takes place at a Specialized Treatment Center that’s far away from home.
Meaning, they have to leave their homes for days, sometimes weeks for treatment, follow-ups, and scans. It’s a lot of running around and back and forth.
You can help a family traveling for treatment by…
- Feeding Pets
- Keeping an eye on the house
- Switching on and off lights
- Walking the dog (or taking in the dog for a few days)
- Picking up mail or packages
It’s much easier to leave when you know that someone is checking on the house, making sure the pipes didn’t freeze and that the cat had some fresh food and water while you were gone.
Little things like that make a huge difference to the peace of mind of a family dealing with cancer…
Do the grocery shopping (or just unload the car)
When you’re stressed out and constantly running around, the last thing you want to do is wrestle with a bunch of groceries.
On the other hand, when my dad was sick, my mom liked to get out of the house for a while, pick out her meat and vegetables and spend an hour totally distracted by produce and sales flyers.
When she came home, it was a BLESSING to have someone there to unload all of that stuff for her.
Feel this one out, but regardless if it’s the shopping or just the unloading, either one helps tremendously.
Gift cards/certificates for bills or the grocery store
Cancer is financially draining. Money and finances are a huge struggle for people who are battling cancer.
If the family is working and battling cancer, they’ll need to take days off or stop working altogether while they’re going through this.
That gives them one more thing to worry and stress about in an already life-threatening situation.
Gift Certificates from the local grocery store or gift cards that can be used to pay the cable, car loan, or electric bill will be extremely helpful to someone struggling through this battle.
Offer to help with laundry
Cancer generates a significant amount of laundry.
You use triple the amount of bedding and when you add that to clothing, towels, and the normal stuff… it can really add up.
Not to mention, if they’re lucky enough to have a washer and a dryer in their house, it’s probably not designed to wash massive amounts of bedding over and over again.
And if they’re using the laundry mat. They don’t have the time, or the inclination to spend the day there.
Offering to take some of that laundry off their hands, even if you send it out to a laundry service will be a HUGE relief.
Make a meal
This was hands down one of the most helpful things people did for us. After spending all day at the doctor’s and then driving home, the last thing you want to do is cook dinner. And eating out all the time is super expensive.
Having a complete meal dropped off and ready to eat (or freeze for later) is like a gift straight from Heaven.
Here’s a few quick tips we’ve learned since we started doing this for other families in this situation.
- Establish a few go-to-meals (Baked Ziti, Chicken and Rice, Mexican Taco Bake).
- Drop off your meal in a disposable pan (you can grab one at the dollar store). This way you don’t have to worry about losing your dish. And they don’t have to worry if they don’t return it.
- Cover with a disposable lid or tin foil.
- Write the directions and any important information on the lid. (example: “Everything’s cooked. Just heat @ 350 degrees until hot, sprinkle the cheese on top melt in the oven. That’s it!”)
- Add a bag of salad (a kit has everything they need) or a can of corn or green beans for the vegetables.
There you go. How to help a family dealing with cancer? You have just made tonight so much easier after an exhausting day.
Offer a ride to doctor’s appointments
If you’re trying to figure out how to help a family dealing with cancer, depending on the type of cancer, we are probably talking about a TON of appointments. And there are so many factors involved in this.
Treatment, symptoms, side effects, rough days, support…
Offering a ride to and from the doctors could be a HUGE relief for someone struggling through this journey.
And it relieves the stress and anxiety of trying to figure that stuff out. Can you imagine how that would feel? Worrying about how you’re going to get to the treatment that could save your life is just more stress.
Offer to keep them company during treatment
They may say no, and that’s okay.
Bladder Cancer, for example, the treatment for that cancer is very private and very personal.
Chemo and Immunotherapy, however, are given through an IV.
One day I saw a young man in his 20’s who got called into treatment ask his friend to come with him. The friend was reading something on his iPhone in the waiting room, didn’t even look up at him, and responded, “no thanks, I’m fine here.”
The young man responded, “you can do that inside you know?” “You can just come with me and do that inside, there is plenty of space.” And the friend without looking up responded… “nope, I’m good here.”
So, the young man looking hurt and really confused and headed off to do his treatment alone.
That scenario stuck with me for a long time. In fact, a few tears slipped down my face as I was writing this.
I don’t know why the man didn’t want to go. Maybe he was nervous.
I get it. You don’t know what to expect and you’re afraid you can’t handle it. I felt that way too. So did every other family who has EVER found themselves in this situation.
I was terrified, but since my dad didn’t really have a choice, so…
Sometimes you just have to dive headfirst into the unknown, even when you’re scared.
My dad felt like it was better to go through this with someone…
Not everyone feels that way, but think we can agree that anyone who has to go through this should get that choice.
And if you’re ever invited into the treatment room, you should consider it an honor and head right in.
Pick up prescriptions
I feel like we practically lived at the pharmacy, while my dad was battling cancer. There were always prescriptions waiting for us and new ones were always being called in.
And when we weren’t physically there, we had the pharmacists on speed dial (no joke, Shannon and Brian alternated days and literally talked to us 5 times a week!)
Pro tip: Pharmacists are an incredible resource during cancer.
Grabbing prescriptions while you’re out running around anyway, is a HUGE tip for how to help a family dealing with cancer. Every bit of energy they can save doing this kind of stuff means they can do something fun later!
Pick up the kids
My parents were retired when my dad got sick. But when I was a child, we had a neighbor whose mom was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and she spent almost every day at my house after school.
We did our homework together, had dinner together, and when were finished we ran amock together. She even got to spend the night on school nights, sometimes. It was all very exciting.
I was thrilled, after all she was my best friend. But for her family, it was a huge relief to have a safe, comfortable place for their daughter to go every day. A place where she was happy and healthy and they don’t have to worry.
Having a safe place where the kids could spend some “off” cancer time, eat some dinner, do their homework (or play video games) is a really big deal.
It’s the kind of support that cancer families need during treatment, during all-day doctor’s appointments, or on rough days when the idea of getting out of bed is excruciating.
Find things they can relate too
Kristina Kotlus, a two time cancer survivor wrote a book called I Quit. Facing Cancer with Faith, Family & Friends.
Even though the title says, I quit, she didn’t quit. This book is a real life account of a young family with small children, fighting this battle and overcoming all the obstacles that have been thrown at them.
It’s one of the most relatable books I have ever read when it comes to this situation. It paints a clear and honest picture of what it’s like to go through a cancer battle.
It perfectly illustrates how cancer changes EVERYTHING, how quickly things escalate once it explodes into your world, how you can still find hope even when the future is terrifying and completely unknown.
The book is an honest portrayal that takes you back to what it was like during every step of the process; diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and what it feels like when you have fought so hard and done everything right, to hear those horrific words that you’ve spent hours agonizing over… “it’s back”.
It’s a story of strength, hope, and encouragement and is an incredible read for anyone going through cancer either as a patient or as a support.
Say a prayer
If you’re asking yourself how to help a family dealing with cancer, the power of prayer is unbelievable, and it won’t cost you a penny.
I am certain that the reason we were able to keep fighting for 21-months was because of this one “simple” gift. It may seem small, but it’s a huge and powerful way how to help a family dealing with cancer!
It’s like ordering some extra backup from Heaven to get through this rough time.
Who doesn’t need some extra backup?
Send a card or a gift basket
This situation is really stressful and intense. Getting a card or a gift basket that brightens your day may seem like a small thing, but it’s not.
When your life feels like one “rough day” after another and there’s no end in sight…
A gift that offers you hope, encouragement, humor, or encouragement can make all the difference.
I always thought gift baskets were kind of chancy because it’s hard to know what someone going through this is going to need.
That is until we got an amazing basket (well actually it’s a tote that we can use over and over again) from Just Don’t Send Flowers…
These baskets include the specific items that will help your loved one get through the difficult treatments that combat cancer.
Things that most of us wouldn’t even think of, such as…
- Specific bath treatments and lotions that soothe irritated skin.
- Tea, cookies, and lollipops that help with nausea (yes, that’s a real thing!)
- Mouth rinse to soothe the sores.
- Scarves and socks to keep feet and heads warm and cozy.
- Items that promote sleep and comfort.
These gift baskets are thoughtful, functional, and soothing to people undergoing the heinous treatments that fight cancer.
If you’re looking for a gift for someone struggling through this, something unique and meaningful that will actually help, we have a whole list here…
Be someone they can reach out to if they need to talk
Answer your phone. Be available. Stop by for coffee or tea, or whatever… if it seems like a bad time ask if you can pop in tomorrow.
Having people there all day, every day is overwhelming. But in my experience, it was a nice distraction to focus on someone else’s life for a little while and get some of this stuff off your chest.
Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on all of the things we needed and how many people helped us on this journey, I have a clear answer to this question…
If you’re struggling to figure out how to help a family dealing with cancer, here’s the best advice we can give you.
Use the ideas above and just jump in and do it.
- Mow the lawn.
- Offer to take the dog while they’re traveling.
- Drop off a dinner they can either eat or freeze.
It’s a miracle (and an honor) to have friends, family, and even complete strangers come out of the woodwork ready and willing to help you get through this.
Having a clear idea of how you can help before you offer, will eliminate any overwhelm the family may feel by these questions.
P.S. If you’re drowning in all this cancer business, and you have no idea where to start…
The Cancer Combat Plan is a step-by-step guide from someone who has struggled through this and found ways to manage the chaos, the stress, and the overwhelm.
Things feel better, and more in control when you have a plan. So if you need action steps, resources, and strategies that will help you manage this crisis, we’ve got you covered.
And it’s totally free when you sign up for our weekly emails (which are packed full of inspiration, encouragement, and tips that actually help you get through this)…
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