How To Be There for Someone with Cancer

how to be there for someone with cancer

“I have cancer.” The words are the most difficult I’ve ever had to say. But while I didn’t want to believe it myself, I desperately didn’t want to put the weight of my diagnosis on the loved ones around me. Maybe your friend or family member has recently shared the life-changing news with you or with a good friend of yours. What do you do now? What do you say? Do you cry with them? Do you stay strong for them? How can you support them during this time? After my diagnosis, I had a lot of people on the internet reach out and ask me similar questions, and knowing that everyone’s experience is different, I was too timid to give them an answer.

But here I am, three years later, understanding that this is a universal problem for the loved ones of a cancer patient, and sadly, it’s also the factor that leads to the patient’s loneliness and feelings of alienation. It’s a tricky situation all around. Hearing the news of a bad diagnosis can be a crippling experience for the family and friends of a cancer patient, which leads to hesitation to get involved, reach out, or offer support, for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.

I understand how at a loss you might feel in a situation when someone has just told you they have cancer. You’ll probably feel like crying after the initial shock subsides. But do you cry? You don’t want your sick loved one to worry about your feelings at this time. And you definitely don’t want them to think that you think they’re dying. But wait, are they dying? What do you even say? What do you do? It can feel like any decision you make is the wrong one.

Let me assure you, there is no “right way” to react. If you worry that you may have put your foot in your mouth by saying or doing the wrong thing, don’t worry! You can apologize for it later and make up for it by just being around your loved one and by offering your support. In general, being authentic can be very refreshing at a time when everyone else seems to be walking on eggshells. When people are tip-toeing around you because you have cancer, it can make you feel like it is up to you put everyone at ease, rather than facing your own emotional and relational needs. So remember, be authentic. And just be there. How? Well, let’s talk about some of the trickier needs most cancer patients are dealing with, and then I’ll talk about more practical ways you can help.



Spending time with your loved one is the easiest way to be there after a cancer diagnosis, but it can seem so difficult to make the first move. I implore you to stop thinking and worrying about it! Just do it. Hop in your car. Buy a plane ticket. Plan lunch. Bring coffee. Send flowers. Pick up the phone. Like I said, so many people don’t know what to do or say, so they just don’t do or say anything. And meanwhile, at a time when they one most value connection and time with loved ones, the cancer patient will often find herself alone.


For me, just being around a group of friends was a great outlet and opportunity for laughter. It felt a little odd if nobody acknowledged what I was dealing with, but dwelling on my illness wasn’t what I wanted either. Usually I just needed friends to acknowledge what I’m going through and that they care, but then I wanted to just move on and partake in the usual fun shenanigans.

Don’t feel a lot of pressure to be a comedian. If you’re not really the funny friend, that’s okay, you can still help add some comic relief! Take your loved one with cancer out to see a comedy show or a funny movie that they’ve been wanting to see. Maybe just rent an old favorite and watch it at home where they can be comfortable. If it feels like a lot of pressure to do something one-on-one, ask a mutual friend to join you. Planning a game night with a group of friends would be a great idea.

I remember during the weeks I was recovering from surgery and waiting to undergo radiation, and I felt so alone and… well, just weird. Nothing seemed normal. But my friend Kara stopped by one day when I had some down time. We sat outside on my patio just talking about life and laughing together. Then she pulled out a cigarette and said, “You want one? I mean, you already have cancer, so….” And I laughed hysterically and so appreciated her ease around me, helping me feel like it was just like old times, even though I had cancer and she was directly acknowledging it in perhaps the most uncouth manner. No eggshells there!


Ask questions, and listen. Don’t assume your loved one is scared or worried. I actually had the unusual experience of not being afraid or worried after my diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have disconcerting feelings and dark thoughts. I hesitate to even offer advice about this, because everyone has different ways of communicating, and different levels of vulnerability. But having cancer may make someone more vulnerable than ever. Don’t be afraid to boldly ask, “Are you afraid?” or “Are you angry?” You could soften the questions with, “If I’m intruding, just let me know and we can talk about something else.” But sometimes it helps to have someone draw out illusive feelings with leading questions, without relating your experience to someone else they know or something that they themselves had gone through. I would caution against comparing your experiences with theirs, even if you think it’s safe by prefacing it with “I know it’s not the same thing, but…” It may still feel like you are minimizing or distorting their experience to a degree. It’s safer to just stick to talking about how your friend is feeling.

If they feel alone because nobody around them understands what they’re experiencing, and you actually do know someone who lived through a very similar experience, offer to connect them by having lunch with each of them at the same time, or offer to connect them on Facebook. I found a support group page for people with my rare form of cancer on Facebook, and that has been a great outlet to find others who understand what I’m going through. This could be a helpful suggestion, though some people might be resistant.

In general, I would say that you probably know your friend better than me, so it is up to you to try to gauge the conversation so you don’t push them too far. If you try to have a serious emotional talk, and there is resistance, maybe it is a better time to offer an escape, a laugh, or just a fun time.

how to be there for someone with cancer

physical needs of cancer patients

Because everyone’s needs and feelings are different, and often change from day to day, my first thought is that you should just ask your loved one how you can be there for them after their cancer diagnosis. Maybe they will give you an honest answer. Or maybe they don’t know what they’re feeling or needing, or they (like me) are a bit too prideful to let you know. Oftentimes those diagnosed with cancer don’t want to be a burden to their loved ones. So keep that in mind, and if you suspect that might be the case with your loved ones, there are some practical ways you can help meet their needs while assuaging their pride. Most likely some of these struggles below will affect your loved one, and you can help without having to say, “Let me know how I can help.” (Because they probably won’t.)


I had to drive three hours a day, round-trip, to my cancer treatment which lasted a total of five weeks. It was exhausting, expensive, and could have been very lonely. My mom went with me most days, my mother-in-law and cousin pitched in, and one time a friend accompanied me, which actually made the trip a lot of fun! If your loved one is up for it, do something fun right after treatment. I have to caution you, depending on what treatment they received, they may just need rest afterwards. But if you’d like to share some fun experiences with them, don’t wait until they’re halfway through their treatment regimen. The side effects get worse and worse, so doing fun things during the first couple weeks might be the only opportunity until after they’ve recovered.


Depending on the treatment they’re receiving, your friend may be struggling to eat. Bringing food for the rest of the family can be helpful, especially if the cancer patient is the one who usually prepares meals for the family. Keep in mind that the cancer patient herself might not be able to eat the same foods as her family. Ask her or her family what she’s been eating, and bring that to her home. I lived on smoothies, so I needed lots of prepped vegetables, fruits, milled flax seed, and that sort of thing. My issue was not only that I couldn’t taste food, but also that my mouth wasn’t producing saliva. So every time I tried to salivate I would break out in painful blood blisters on my cheeks and under/around my tongue. This happened whenever I saw yummy food or put anything into my mouth— even my toothbrush. Other people may have lost their appetite altogether, or may feel extremely nauseous and can only stomach certain foods. This is so frustrating both physically and emotionally for the patient, as you can probably imagine. My grandma loved the comfort of ice cream when she went through chemo. I tried eating ice cream during my treatment and cried because I couldn’t taste it and it just gave me blisters in my mouth. For someone who is used to going to food for comfort, it’s a very emotional experience not being able to eat or taste food.


Cancer patients still have to go to work in most cases, and those patients with children are always on the clock. Offer to take the children to the park, library, or a fun destination that will get out their energy. Tell your friend to use this time to rest and take a nap. Before you leave, change the sheets on their bed, start a load of laundry, and finish the load when you return. Or maybe take laundry with you and bring it back clean and neatly folded the next day. That leads me to my next point.

Cancer patients have housework. How can you help?

Think of how difficult housework is to keep up with in your own home. And then imagine how difficult it is when you are losing hours a week traveling to doctors appointments, and then feeling zapped of all energy once you’re home. The cancer patient still feels like she should be contributing to housework, as ridiculous as that may seem. She still likes a clean house, and her children and pets still create messes while she rests on the sofa. The toilets are still being used, and the dishes are piling up beside the sink. You know what I’m about to say. Go over there and be her housekeeper!

If you can’t clean the whole house, at least do the dishes or take their laundry with you and bring it back neatly folded the next day.

Please keep in mind how incredibly awkward it is to let someone in your home to clean up after you, especially when you’re right there sitting on the sofa, feeling like a lazy bum— even though you’re just a fatigued cancer patient. So I recommend you team up with another helpful friend who will take your loved one out of the house while it’s being cleaned. The two of them can do something fun and relaxing, like a pedicure, a massage, or a trip to the movies. Then, the next week, you can be the one to go out and do the fun thing while your helpful friend stays and cleans.

Having a clean house is so refreshing and can lift pounds of stress and anxiety from the shoulders of someone relaxing at home during cancer treatment. If you’re not able to clean for her because of distance or time, please consider hiring a regular maid service to help her for a month or two. She might not ever consider doing this for herself, but this sacrifice on your part might be the most support she’ll receive during her experience with cancer.

Cancer patients have children. How can you help?

As I mentioned before, offer to get the children out of the house so your friend can rest. Or offer to stay at home with the kids while he or she runs errands or does something fun with another friend. Maybe your friend needs a date night, or just a night of uninterrupted sleep. If you’re a trusted friend of the family, why not offer to keep the children overnight, or stay at her house to help out with babies and children through the night? I had cancer and a small baby at the same time, and having help with kids made me feel refreshed and stronger than ever.


Cancer takes a toll emotionally and physically, but it can absolutely decimate people financially. Many people would not admit to floundering financially, and would not feel comfortable taking money if offered. But that doesn’t mean you can’t assist anonymously if you’re able. Our church office called us one day to tell us that an anonymous someone wanted to know how much money we needed to pay off all of my medical bills. We were very uncomfortable with this, even though we believe this is what the church family is for. So we told them an amount that would certainly help (but would still leave us with debt), and then we received a money order for that amount in the mail. Of course I cried all the way to the bank. Another friend arranged a fund amongst some of my friends from the old days of scrapbook blogging and chatting on message boards. They all gave what they could, the sum of which added up to be very helpful. Yes, I cried again.

Maybe if you feel like your friend won’t be comfortable with receiving money (anonymously or otherwise), you could send gift cards to grocery stores, gas stations, or even retail shops. Retail gift cards might seem like an impractical way to help, but I know that if I received money, it would go directly to my medical bills, and I would feel guilty spending it on anything else. Giving a retail gift card gives that person permission to indulge in some retail therapy, or provide a Christmas for their family that they had thought would be impossible after their cancer diagnosis.

I remember wanting to go on a trip with Phil, because I didn’t know what our future held, and I felt the immediacy of my relationship with him (and of course with my whole family). But we just didn’t have the money. So we never did. Someday, I want to be so on top of our finances that I can afford to buy a getaway for a friend who, God forbid, might have cancer, so she can have some quality time with her husband. This is just an idea for those who are well off financially and who want to know ways they can dramatically support a loved one with cancer.

what makes a shadow

what not to do for someone with cancer

First of all, I know these might not be true for everyone, but they were true for me. And if you said or did one of these things to me when I was diagnosed, please don’t feel bad. I’m just glad that you cared enough to reach out to show your concern and give your support. But also, just know that these aren’t the best things to do or say, so if you want to be sensitive to your loved one with cancer, take note.

Don't offer to connect them with your homeopathic doctor.

You might ask them if they’re happy with their care, and if they’re not, you may then ask if they’re interested in alternative medicine. If the answer is yes, then by all means connect them with a homeopathic doctor you trust.

Don't tell them a story about someone you know who had cancer.

Even if the story had a happy ending, it can across as desperate for good news and encouragement, which inadvertently tells them that their situation is so sad you need to manufacture hope. Your friend with cancer is unique, and the struggle they’re embarking on is unique. Everyone’s diagnosis is different, as is their treatment, prognosis, and certainly the type of cancer. I was in a unique position because the type of cancer I have is extremely rare, and it isn’t made up of cancer cells like most others. It is cancerous in behavior only, and there’s not much known about the tumors themselves. Most likely nobody personally knew someone with my same type of cancer, and even if they did, our stories would be vastly different. This is another reason why suggesting forms of treatment or doctors is a bit ridiculous. I doubt if many homeopathic doctors know anything about cancerous paragangliomas, and it’s just exhausting trying to explain this to people who brought up alternative treatment ideas. So I would usually just smile and nod, and feel a bit worked up on the inside.

Now this is not to say that you can’t say something like, “My brother-in-law has cancer too.” Or, “My aunt has cancer too. I’m not quite sure how to be there for her.” This is a way of connecting, and isn’t necessarily relating someone else’s experience to your loved one’s experience. I guess if you’re wondering, you can always ask, “Does it frustrate you when people tell you stories about other people they know with cancer?”


Again, feel free to ask if they’re interested in more information about new treatment options or centers you’ve heard about, or about support groups that could be helpful. If the answer is yes, then by all means, provide them with material. But I would always ask first.


Perhaps you bought something with a ribbon on it to donate your money in support of those with cancer, and you’d like your friend with cancer to know and feel your support. So you give it to them as a gift. But I personally wouldn’t know what to do with something like that practically speaking, and besides, why would donate to a charity supporting those with cancer, when someone in need of financial support is right in front of you? Maybe it’s awkward to offer financial help, but I already mentioned a bunch of financial ways you can that might be less awkward than just writing a check. I guarantee however you could financially help, it will be more appreciated than the cancer tchotchkes.

cancer industry conspiracies

As convinced as you may be that your loved one is being fleeced by a flawed medical industry, telling them about it is not helpful. It makes their experience more about you and your ideas than about them and their plight. Clearly they have confidence in their doctors and the medical field or they would be pursuing alternative forms of treatment. Just spouting off your theories and vitriol of the industry will shake up your loved one and may take away one of the few confidences they have— confidence in their caregivers. This particular warning takes the cake for me. Please, don’t be “that guy.”


These are all good things to think about and consider, but the best way you can help someone with cancer is to quit overanalyzing everything and just be there for them! Show your care and concern. Offer your prayers, and don’t feel the need to always tell them that you’re praying. Just pray, if that’s what you’re convicted to do. Tell them you’re thinking about them. Send them flowers. And let them know that they are loved.

For those interested in my cancer journey, here are some past posts I’ve written about my experiences.

All illustrations are created by Adrienne Adams for the 1962 children’s book “What Makes a Shadow?”

Magic Mornings = Successful Days

Successful morning makes for successful days!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that a lingering sense of inadequacy is always present. Regardless of what stage of life you or I are in, we’ve probably felt overwhelmed and under-equipped at some point, if not at multiples times each day. As a mother I’ll often stop and think, what on earth did I do with my time before kids? But the fact is, I remember feeling overwhelmed and frazzled before kids. Is it just me, I wondered? I doubt it.

But lately I’ve discovered the magic of changing my morning routine to positively impact my mind and how I’m able to handle the rest of my day— as easy or as stressful as it might be. What’s my secret? Getting up earlier, actually! Who knew?

my morning routine

I’ve discovered that an extra hour each morning can work wonders for the rest of my day. Maybe this is no revelation to all of you morning people out there, but for me, it has taken a huge sacrifice each day to get there. To get up before a work schedule dictated the beginning of my day. To get up before Lucy was whining for me to make her breakfast, and then a different breakfast because she changed her mind. To get up just for the sake of having an easier morning has been no easy task, but it’s done wonders for the success of my days!

Let me tell you, waking up earlier will do nothing for you if you’re sleep deprived. So I suppose the first positive change starts the evening before— turning off electronics, saying no to “just one more episode” urges, and making needed changes to prepare for a restful night of rest in order to be able to function the next day.

But once I’m there in the morning (alongside my go-getter husband who has been my biggest inspiration), getting up earlier gives me much needed alone time to contemplate my dreams and goals (for life, or just for my day), or just to catch up on some reading. There’s nothing quite like being able to drink all of my coffee while it’s still hot, savoring its creamy deliciousness, and just sitting completely still if that’s what I feel like doing. This time makes me feel rejuvenated, but also starts my day with a sense of accomplishment and pride, knowing that I got started earlier than I actually needed to.

starting off the day on a productive note

When I don’t carve out this time at the beginning of my day (which is the last thing I feel like doing when my bed is so cozy and warm!), I’m awoken by a screaming baby (who’s been crying for who knows how long?) or a yelling toddler (who’s awoken a screaming baby) who is ready with her list of demands for the day, starting with breakfast because she is STARVING (she’s probably yelling this in my ear which is covered with my bed sheets). Not exactly the chill and empowering start to the day I really crave, is it? This is what I try to remind myself during the mental battle each day to get my bones out. of. BED!

So I wake up early and make the magic happen. What do I do first? I’ll drag myself into the kitchen and get a pot of water onto the stove. As the water reaches its boiling point, I’ll challenge myself to accomplish as many little kitchen/home tasks I can in that amount of time. Usually I can get a load of laundry started, unload the dishwasher, and water my plants. Then, I’ll pour the hot water over coffee grounds in my french press and set the timer for another four minutes. Time to scurry around getting my gym bag ready, putting away a few stray toys, and maybe if I’m quick, I can clean a bottle or two. By now my coffee is ready and I already feel accomplished and ready to attack the day. But this is my moment. My coffee is ready. I’ve got my special Simply Pure Hazelnut creamer. It’s just the beginning of my day, but I have accomplished tasks already and can fully rest, relax, and contemplate my plan of attack as I sip my coffee in silence. I feel equipped to start the day on my own terms. I feel ready to adult! And it’s magic. Until I hear Lucy’s bedroom door squeak open and the chaos begins. But I’m ready. Bring it, sisters! What do you want for breakfast?!

here come the monsters!

beginning my days on my own terms, not theirs.

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of International Delight. The opinions and text are all mine.


Rescuing Hobbies

How do you measure the value of a hobby?

I love to be creative. It’s what makes me feel most alive— most like myself. When I’m not making things, I end up turning inward and finding things about myself I don’t like. My self esteem and body image begin to plummet. But when I am exercising my talents and abilities, I am happy and feel fulfilled as a person. While I might be inept in a lot of other ways, my strengths and capabilities are able to shine through my hobbies and give me a sense of accomplishment. This is why I’ve worked so darn hard on the dollhouse I’ve been sharing with you. No— it’s not because I have too much time on my hands (Ha. Ha.), and no, it’s not because I’m an amazing mother. It’s because I discovered I really enjoy making miniatures and was absolutely thrilled to my core when doing so.

Recently, I’ve been impressed with lots of feelings about adults and hobbies. And the sad fact is, not many adults see the value in hobbies. I’ve seen husbands discourage wives from putting money into hobbies because their hobby won’t bring any money into their household. I’ve had people express to me their desires to build a dollhouse, but end up admitting they wouldn’t because they don’t have children to enjoy it. As if the only value in a hobby is in its practicality or end purpose. This mentality is so ultra American. Our history is built around pragmatism, and it’s hard to not let that influence the way we live our adults lives.

hobbies have value

Children are encouraged to explore all kinds of hobbies- art, dancing, athletics, music, clubs, and more. Often within clubs, they’re encouraged to give back to the community, whether through volunteering, organizing donation efforts for those in need, or raising awareness for rare diseases. Kids are often doing way more than adults these days. But I’m not here to talk about the kids. I’m here to ask, why are the kids having all the fun? Why are the majority of adults working a job they don’t enjoy and returning home to watch television they sort of enjoy? Why do we feel the only way to justify having a hobby is if it can earn extra money? When we encourage children to pursue their interests, is it only to eventually help them decide which career to pursue? Because let’s be real, most people aren’t actually able to turn their hobby into a paying job, much less a full-time one. So do those people just abandon those things that make them multi-faceted, happy individuals once they become an adult? Are we expected to work jobs we tolerate, or sometimes hate, only to return home and escape into a televised world featuring people who are out living their lives to the fullest and exploring their passions? Why are adults pressured to find their fulfillment in their work, and if they can’t do that, to just exist and help their children eventually live a better life?

I’m curious how many adults you know have hobbies. I’m definitely privileged to have grown up in a lower middle class family where healthy adulting was modeled for me- hobbies included. My dad designs robots by day (how cool is he?!), and my mom worked a variety of retail jobs throughout my childhood, when she wasn’t staying home to home school me and my brother. My dad is a woodworking hobbyist, has volunteered to build a track and organize pinewood derby style races for local churches, hosts a card club once a month with his buddies, and sings bass in a traveling men’s quartet. My mother plays the piano for local choirs and for special recording events, she organizes musical programs at our church, has a book study every Sunday evening and card club once a month with friends. My parents are both avid readers and enjoy traveling too. You’d think all of that means we’ve been pretty busy as a family, but we really weren’t. We usually sat down at the dinner table together as a family, and I was able to learn about a lot of my own talents and passions by joining my parents in theirs. To this day, my dad and I spend hours together in the garage building things, and I know without his influence I wouldn’t be as interested in wood working, and definitely not as proficient.

As I typed that last paragraph, I was impressed by how privileged I really am to have had such amazing parents, but it also challenges me to create a similar childhood for my girls. Yes, it’s important to play with my children and invest my time in them, but it’s also important for me to spend time alone and investing in ME. That means I find babysitters at least once a week, I end up staying up far too late at night, and I will trade kids with local friends to have some time alone. With my alone time, I’m often tempted to unwind by eating a treat, drinking hot coffee, and watching television, but I am actually most fulfilled when I am being creative. So that’s what I do! Lately it’s been the dollhouse. What an adventure that’s been!

hobbies help me be happy

So how do we rationalize having hobbies, when our lives are already so full to the brim? How can we justify the expense of craft supplies, music lessons, or league fees when our budget is as tight as can be? I have a few ideas which have helped me. As far as justification goes, you have to find the value in having a hobby. I look at my hobbies as essential to my health and happiness. Do you invest money in healthy foods because you see the value in your resulting quality of health? That’s sort of how I view the time and money required to have a hobby. Do you see a therapist to work through your emotional issues or dissatisfaction with your life? Not that a hobby would replace a therapist for mental or extreme emotional issues, but working with my hands has certainly helped me work through a lot of my self esteem issues.

But how do I find the time for my hobbies? I admit— I stay up sometimes until 4am because of the creative pull which sometimes feels impossible to escape. That’s not healthy, and I don’t recommend it. But lately I’ve been thinking of ways I can find time in my day by whittling time away from other necessities. For instance, we finally got a freezer to put in our garage so I can spend way less time cooking. When I make food, I can make double or triple the amount and put the extras in the freezer. Making food in bulk has been a huge time saver for me, and also helps us save money on takeout when we haven’t had time to cook. Other ways I’ve found to save time is to spend less of it on social media, or setting a timer when I’m browsing the internet so I don’t spend more time than I’ve allotted. I try to be efficient in my shopping trips as well, and have learned to say no to things I really don’t want to do, but would’ve said yes to in the past because of fear, guilt, or obligation. (That’s a whole ‘nother discussion for another day!) If you’re having trouble finding ways to shave time off your day, utilize social media and ask your friends for their best time-saving advice. Maybe spend a few days tracking the time you spend doing things and review it your logs later so you are able to see where you are wasting time on non-necessities and unfilfilling things that could be better spent exploring a hobby or doing something more fulfilling.

make time for hobbies

And what about money? Well, this is a sticky thing, because everyone’s budgets and financial goals are different. But since my husband and I have been on a budget, I’ve finally been able to spend money without guilt. That might sound backwards, but think about it: If I have a set amount of money each month to spend on whatever I want, I can spend that and not feel like I shouldn’t— because it’s already been set aside for this purpose. Because everything is budgeted, I don’t find money disappearing during Target trips or at coffee shop drive throughs, because I keep a watchful eye on every penny spent. That means I can make my money do what I want, instead of what genius marketers (Target Target TARGET!) want me to spend it on. We still have debt we’re diligently paying off each month (student loans— UGH), but we’ve found ways to save money on things we need to buy by doing things like shopping around for the best insurance rates and shopping at discount grocery stores (like Aldi), and we’ve also cut out things that we don’t need, such as cable TV and gym memberships (we still exercise at home). We’ve also found ways to increase our earning so that our budget has some wiggle room for fun things that we can spend money on, even while we aggressively pay off debt. The trick is to not let earning extra money take up all of our time so that we can still spend quality time together as a family and also alone as individual exploring our own interests.

I suppose you could find a myriad of excuses for not investing in a personal hobby, whatever that may be for you, but I encourage you to realize the value of exploring your passions and talents through a new or old hobby this year. Break through the barriers of excuses and unfilfilling time-sucks, and make this a priority in your life. It will enrich your days, inspire your friends and family, and maybe bring some valuable relationships into your life as well! Who knows? Why not try it out and see what can happen?

Lead image adapted from a Hellen Borten children’s book illustration.