How to Help a Cancer Patient

This list of 35 ways to help a cancer patient started out as an exercise in gratitude, a list of very specific things I’ve been grateful for since my brain cancer diagnosis in 2017.

But I realized it could be useful too. I’ve been asked so many times, “How can I help?” 

Sometimes I’ve known I needed help but was physically so exhausted I just couldn’t think of anything specific.

I have a feeling I’m not the only cancer patient who’s had this experience, though. My hope is that you’ll contribute more ideas or examples in the comments and that this list of ideas helps patients know what to ask for and helps non-patients know what to offer.

Full disclosure: I’m adding referral links to help pay ongoing medical bills.

Ways to Help a Cancer Patient

1. Buy groceries.

We’ve received gifted grocery orders from friends who live out of state via Instacart, and those deliveries were an absolute godsend. Fresh food, produce, prepared meals, hydration powders, protein shakes — it’s as good to have one less thing to do as it is to have full cupboards.

2. Mow the lawn.

This is a no-brainer. Even if technically someone in the household can mow, it doesn’t mean they don’t have their hands full.

3. Bake something.

Store bought baked goods have their place, don’t get me wrong. But homemade banana bread and cookies taste like love. People have worried about whether or not I can keep stuff down, but here’s the thing: Dan needs to eat too.

4. Send gift cards.

When I was traveling to St. Louis for radiation and chemo in 2017, restaurant and gas gift cards meant I could focus on treatment.

5. Watch their YouTube videos.

My YouTube Zentangle channel became eligible for monetization a couple of years ago, so when people watch my videos now I actually make a few cents from the ads. Early subscribers who watched because they cared about me, and not my Zentangles are the reason my channel was able to grow.

6. Read their blog.

My site analytics tell me that a few people are interested in reading the (sometimes) mundane stuff I write on my blog. Even when cancer has me feeling down, it’s a little less lonely out here.

7. Send a package.

Not every gift has to be brand new either. Some of the most helpful things I got were second-hand treasures. During lockdown, getting a surprise in the mail always brightened my day.

8. Design a living space.

So this one might be a little too specific to help everyone, I happen to be related to an architect. He came up with plans for a new space so we could be closer to family and I could live in an accessible home. 

9. Share, start, or donate to a fundraiser.

I’ve had a couple of GoFundMe campaigns since 2017. People, some even strangers, have helped by donating and sharing links. Cancer is expensive to treat, and that’s just scratching the surface. If you know, you know.

10. Share a wishlist.

I know Amazon isn’t the most reputable company on the planet, but setting up a wishlist there has made it easy to give and receive. When people have passed my Amazon wishlist link on through social media, it’s been cleared in a matter of hours sometimes. Sometimes I ask for creature comforts, and sometimes necessities.

11. File taxes.

My Dad did our taxes while I was going through radiation. He helped us in so many ways, but this will stick with me, always.

12. Fill out forms.

Being sick and filling out paperwork for, well, anything is not an enjoyable experience. Sometimes I’ve needed help remembering information because of the chemo fog. Other times my neuropathy made it too difficult to wield a pen. 

13. Become a patron.

Assuming, someone has a Patreon account, this can be a wonderful way to show support. This is how my art supplies and video equipment were funded for my YouTube channel, and it’s how my webserial memoir, Who You Gonna Believe got off the ground.

14. Leave a comment.

Doesn’t matter where it’s been—on a blog, a video, or a social media post—reading and responding to comments gets me out of my own head. Sometimes it’s the only thing that does.

15. Visit.

Exercise caution here. The pandemic has complicated this one, I know. But an (occasional, I’m still an introvert and cancer makes me tired) short visit or an overnight stay has reminded me I’m living, not dying. 

16. Share what you create.

Whether you paint, make TikToks, or build furniture, I always want to see it.

17. Offer a warm blanket.

When I have had MRIs or infusions at the hospital, the nurse or tech always offers a warm blanket. Put a throw in the dryer for someone. NOTE: Temperature dysregulation might make an offer of an ice pack a better choice.

18. Complete a chore.

My SIL once patched and repaired tiles and moldy drywall in our bathroom. Stuff that desperately needs to be done but patients and caregivers don’t have time or energy for are what I’m talking about here. If you can’t do it, but you can line up help? Also worth considering.

19. Support a caregiver.

I spend about 50% of my worrying time stressing about Dan. Supporting him is supporting me. Sometimes I put stuff he’d like on my wishlist.

20. Give them weed.

Void where prohibited by law.

21. Get angry or swear.

When I get bad news or have rough day, sometimes all I really want is validation. Dropping an appropriately placed F-bomb can be a lot more helpful than a cliche “at least you don’t have…”

22. Make them a sign.

My mom made me a sign that just said “tumor” when I was first diagnosed. I flashed it anytime a full explanation was too great a burden to bear.

23. Be forgiving.

Some meds make me irritable, and a lack of sleep or the inability to feed myself can make me cry at the slightest provocation. Grace is always appreciated.

24. Wear a mask.

We can make this about Covid if you insist, but I don’t want the flu or the common cold either. When people outside my circle mask up, I feel safer. Like maybe one trip to a public building won’t leave me bedridden for weeks. Like maybe hedonism doesn’t always win.

25. Get vaccinated.

See 24.

26. Schedule a game night.

It’s good for the soul to have some stress-free fun on a regular basis. I’ve enjoyed in-person board games and online video gaming so much. And because it’s just a game, I never felt guilty about backing out because of cancer symptoms or chemo side effects. 

27. Pet sit.

My initial treatment was concurrent radiation and chemo. Not only was it in St. Louis, 3 hours away from my home, but it was very intense because life with cancer was so new to me. Having someone to watch our dog and cat for 2 months was helpful beyond words.

28. Research a major purchase.

Sometimes (okay a lot of times) buying stuff takes research. When people make recommendations for big purchases like a robot vacuum or a refrigerator, it’s a huge load off.

29. Assume the thank you is implied.

I’ve had so much support from friends, family, co-workers, and even total strangers. I always want to send a thank you to acknowledge that support, but sometimes life’s proverbial fires get in the way. When people don’t take offense if I miss something or just plain forget (because, hello chemo fog), that’s helpful.

30. Enable a hobby.

Send art supplies. The coloring book is a cliché that some patients don’t appreciate as much as others. (I personally collect them, so feel free to send me what you don’t want.) But there are loads of hobbies you can help someone explore. That’s how I fell down the Zentangle rabbit hole.

31. Vote.

This is specifically meant for my U.S. audience, but I’m sure it applies elsewhere too. Whether your views are liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, it doesn’t matter so much. Nothing is more harmful to a patient than apathy. People are bankrupted by a cancer diagnosis when not enough people care care about laws, systems, and policy.

32. Drop them off at the door.

“Take the stairs” and “park farther away from the door” don’t apply to me anymore. Some days and weather conditions require being dropped off. When someone does this for me, I feel seen. On days when I’m up for a few extra steps, I’ll say so.

33. Shop for them.

My mom thinks shopping is enjoyable and returning items is no big deal. When I gained 60 pounds on dexamethasone, she did all the shopping work for me. All I had to do was try stuff on at home and say “keep” or “pass.” It was glorious. 

34. Send them cat photos and funny memes.

Does this need explanation? When you don’t know what to say to cheer up someone with cancer, try this.

35. Advocate.

You could go to an appointment with a patient or run a 5k with the patient’s name on your shirt. It all matters. Whether you know someone who lacks the resources to deal with The System or not, you help today’s patients and everyone who follows.

BONUS! 36. Meet them where they are.

I could write an entire post on brain cancer disability, but too keep this brief let me just say: every person with cancer is disabled. Disability can fluctuate from day to day. It might be permanent, like in my case, or it might be temporary. It might be cognitive or physical or emotional. Learning to recognize it is vital. Always.

See the updated and improved list: Ultimate Guide to Helping a Loved One with Brain Cancer

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