How to Help When Cancer Strikes a Loved One

Four experts weigh in on what to do to help a loved one who just got a cancer diagnosis

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If a friend or loved one receives a cancer diagnosis, it’s only natural to want to reach out in some meaningful way to show your care. Area experts provided a few ideas on what you can do to help.

• “Ask the patient what would be most helpful for them — not everyone needs the same things or the same type of support when going through a difficult time. Finding out what would be most helpful to the patient is a good first step.

• “Also ask how much they would like to talk about their diagnosis and how they would like this information shared with others. Oftentimes people who are diagnosed hear stories from friends and family about others who have gone through treatment, and this can be very overwhelming. Being mindful of these things can go a long way.

• “Find ways to help with the basics of day-to-day activity — Meal Train, Grub Hub gift card, rides for kids to activities, gift card for housekeeping or yard work services, etcetera.

• “Offer to accompany a patient to appointments or treatment for support, as an extra set of ears and to take notes.

• “Treat the person going through cancer the same as you did prior to their diagnosis. It is helpful to remind them that their diagnosis is something they are going through, but does not change who they are or the relationship you have with them.

• “Offer to provide transportation to and from treatments.”

Megan Tyo, oncology social worker with Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Pluta Cancer Center, Rochester.

• “Instead of asking ‘What can I do?’ say ‘I can…’ Often the individual is overwhelmed and doesn’t know what they need.

• “Offer assistance with babysitting and running errands.

• “Ask what meal they would like to have. Tastes change during treatment. What was once a favorite may not be appealing or tolerated.

• “Give gift cards to restaurants, Wegmans, pizza shop, coffee house, etc.

• “Fill a tote bag to take to treatment. It can be filled with a book, small pillow, pen and paper, hard candies, or any favorite treat.

• “Be creative and make it fun. Movie night at home, spa day at home, a couch tailgate party, lunch from a favorite restaurant at home with a few friends, etcetera. Modify favorite activities to accommodate the health of the patient.

• “Be aware of the family and their needs; they might not ask for help.

• “Be just as attentive to the individual after treatment. Treatment may be over, but emotions are still raw.”

Thomas Smith, social worker at Lipson Cancer Center, Rochester.

• “Focus on healthy, plant-based meal ideas. Someone going through a cancer diagnosis may be embarking on new healthy dietary changes, so to be supportive of their health it’s best to try and make dishes that they can feel good about eating. Include cruciferous vegetables — especially broccoli sprouts, which are helpful for detoxification and slow tumor growth — lean proteins which help maintain muscle mass, and healthy fats are the basic tenets of a healthy meal.

• “Consider making them a healthy sweet treat. Recipes like avocado chocolate pudding, chocolate beet cupcakes that use plant-based ingredients and stevia as a sweetener can help loved ones indulge while still nourishing their body with high-quality ingredients.

• “Bring them a green tea sampler kit. Green tea is anti-inflammatory, filled with antioxidants, and has anti-cancer benefits. Make sure tea is organic, but include samples of different flavor combinations such as turmeric, ginger (great for nausea), mint, etc.”

Heather Carrera, doctor of clinical nutrition, office of Lesley James, MD, Rochester.

• “Get in touch with them, whether calling or writing. I got a lot of notes from people out of town, which was very helpful.

• “A few prayer groups put me on their prayer list.

• “Provide help with house cleaning and laundry.

• “Give rides to church or to go out a little bit for a ride once it’s good weather.”

Marguerite Dynksi,  breast surgeon with Rochester Regional Health and breast cancer survivor.