cancerIt’s happens all too often. A diagnosis of cancer for a friend or family member and the world stands still. Little things outside don’t matter anymore. Really who cares about the latest scores, news or even weather? Unless it directly relates to the treatment or diagnosis of our loved ones, nothing else matters.

It’s fear and sorrow like you’ve never felt before and you’re not even the patient.

When my daughter was unexpectedly diagnosed I can tell you the time of the day, what we were wearing and what I was doing before the doctor’s words. After the words, I can’t remember a thing that happened that day. Not a thing. Today Susan is battling again, but she has experienced welcome periods of NED, no evidence of disease. It’s been a long journey, a journey that was made possible by the help and love given to her by so many people. Today she has close friends, who were mere acquaintances before her cancer and made many new friends that have touched her life because of this disease. Folks that rallied around and seemed to know just what to do to help ease the burdens. And on the other side of the coin, there were friends and family members that just disappeared — perhaps they didn’t know what to say or were too busy. We’ll never know, but this is not an indictment. Honestly I don’t know what I would have done either, if we didn’t have a first-hand experience dealing with cancer.

When cancer hit close again, a friend said to me, “I don’t know what to do”, “what should I say”? My response is to let the person know you are thinking of them, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just stay in touch and don’t let them feel forgotten.

We asked cancer patients and survivors what they thought. What really helped and people did that made a difference in their lives. It’s not too surprising that it’s the small things that mattered. The saddest ones to read were from the folks that felt forgotten. “It seems as though, after the initial shock and surgery, people forget that a person fighting cancer is still fighting for months. I think I’ve been forgotten.”

Here are what we heard from those who have been going through this journey, both patients and caregivers. As you can see, what most of them want doesn’t cost money, only our time and love.

  • A meal plan was top on many lists and the website is terrific website for setting this up. Easy and free. Fuzzy (cozy) socks were also mentioned by several people.
  • Cards of encouragement was so uplifting. I also received 3 prayers shawls (my hospital gave me one) and I was put on and still am on a ton of prayer lists!
  • Offer to clean their house, mow lawn, get groceries, etc. It was always the general everyday chores that my husband and I had a tough time keeping up with since you don’t want to have to spend all of your “good days” doing work.
  • Having help given freely; not being asked what they could do. And people NOT telling me ‘everything will be fine’!
  • Freezer meals you can just nuke. Or just call and ask what you can do right now or in the next few days AND MEAN IT. (don’t say call me anytime – that’s BS – I won’t do it because I don’t know if you mean it). Have some suggestions ready for the basics -e.g. grocery shopping? Help with housecleaning?
  • We had just moved to a new City so didn’t know anyone. I was also taking care of my Mother-in-Law who had dementia. The most wonderful thing happened when a cousin came to visit. He made me stay at home and sleep there for a night (I’d been at the hospital for weeks). Got up and every stitch of laundry was folded. I cried. After 3+ months in the hospital, some people from work brought food over for a while and it was very gratefully received. That was wonderful and I will always be grateful.
  • ALWAYS stay in touch. Sometimes people forget about what’s happening in your life when you’re dealing with cancer. Never talk about how sucky your life is to a cancer patient or care giver. If they have young kids, take their kids out for a few hours.
  • Having someone mow my lawn! And water my garden while I was out of state for treatment.
  • A friend mailed me a card once a week for months. It was awesome.
  • One lovely friend texted me inspirational quotes every single day while I was getting radiation treatment. It let me know she was thinking of me every day, didn’t need a response, and a lot were funny, too. I really looked forward to them!
  • My coworkers all bought little gifts and they wrapped them in individual packages and told me I could open one every day while getting chemo. I had enough to open one a day for almost 2 months! It was an amazing gesture that I will never forget!
  • Gas cards are a lifesaver! Grocery gift certificates, cards and letters were great, I enjoyed checking the mail everyday and I saved every card. Take time to do one enjoyable thing a day, play cards, dice, watch a movie, anything you feel up to doing, but try to find something enjoyable in each day.
  • Having someone to drive me the nearly two hours to/from Iowa City when I was unable was invaluable. Also having someone come visit at the hospital was much appreciated– because of that two hour drive and small family, my only visitor after surgery day was a friend who lived in the area. Really would have been nice had she been able to bring in a collie, but coffee was close enough.
  • We had friends send over a photographer right after my son was diagnosed to have family pictures made in our yard. They had them framed for us. I just lost my son this week. I look at those pictures and I’m so thankful for that gift.
  • A very few people were willing to sit with my husband in the hospital, most offered and then when I tried to get them to set a time (to give me a break), they equivocated. So to those few who actually did it, my heartfelt thanks.
  • Getting cards in the mail. One friend washed the dishes in my sink. Just come and visit for a little bit. Take you to treatment.
  • I was given a basket of hats and scarfs, puzzle books, all sorts of stuff from a lady who had already gone through it. And it really help me be prepared for the hair loss and treatments.
  • I really think any sort of help or encouragement was important. I will say that just doing something – not asking what the person wants or needs – can be a good way to go. I was so overwhelmed with what was going on with my health I could barely think about what we might need.
  • Phone calls so you don’t feel forgotten.
  • My church family are doing three meals a week for us. Gift cards to restaurants and gas cards are helpful. A friend gave my daughter 10 books from his classroom library with a promise of more when she needed them. Her destination imagination team made her a binder with letters and pictures from all of them, a book of puzzles, Sudoku, and a DVD with a message from each of them. She takes this with her every time she goes in for chemo. A friend gave her a gift bag with a big Snuggie, toiletries for the hospital and a very nice insulated water bottle. One friend bought us a shower chair after her initial diagnosis.

Also see:
Hope and Hugs Shopping for useful gifts, with all proceeds going to cancer research.