16 Ways to Support Someone with Cancer

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you may have a million questions running through your head. How should I react? What should I say? How can I help?

We asked our CaringBridge community to share the best ways they’ve offered and received support in this challenging time. They came up with some truly amazing ideas. Here are a few ways you can support a loved one with cancer:

  • Stay in touch with them
  • Be a good listener
  • Send a card
  • Connect them with a community
  • Tell them how you can help
  • Start a CaringBridge site
  • Pick up the phone
  • Pray for them
  • Offer support at all stages
  • Help out around the house
  • Go to chemo with them
  • Bring their favorite food
  • Try simple, special gestures
  • Give them something to look forward to
  • Respect their boundaries
  • Love them

1. Stay in Touch with Them

Make sure to visit your loved one, whether they’re in the hospital or at home. Showing up is always a worthy sign of support. Just make sure to ask before you come over to ensure it’s a good time for them.

“Stay in touch the same way you did before the person was diagnosed. Whatever that looked like before, keep doing that.”

Laurie M.

2. Be a Good Listener

Your loved one may want to talk about what they’re going through, or they might want to simply get their mind off things. Whatever they want to chat about, it’s important that you truly listen. Show support by letting them say what they need.

I always liked just visiting with them, listening to whatever it is they want to talk about. My uncle always enjoyed talking sports with me, so I always chatted with him about local teams.”

Cherie C. K.

3. Send a Card

In an age of mostly digital communication, a handwritten card is a sweet gesture that your loved one can save and look back on when they need some extra love.

45 years ago long before email and social media, I had many friends and family send me Get Well cards.  So many in fact my Mother put them into a scrapbook.”

Richard L.

4. Connect Them with a Community

Many communities exist to connect and support those going through cancer. Connect them to a local or national organization to offer support at scale. Use this guide to find helpful programs and resources.

Cancer Support Community is a wonderful nonprofit that aids in support!”

Shelbi G.

5. Tell Them How You Can Help

A frequent comment the CaringBridge community shares is that it’s much better to offer specific ways you can help out, instead of saying, “Let me know how I can help!”

Going through cancer, or any health crisis for that matter, is incredibly stressful. Your loved one doesn’t need anything else on their plate, including worrying about how you can help.

Instead, simply do something. Take the dog out for a walk. Get a group of friends together and clean up their house. Start a fundraiser to help pay for hospital bills.

Taking that initiative to help is one of the best things you can do. So get out there and start helping!

6. Start a CaringBridge Site

CaringBridge is a nonprofit social network dedicated to helping family and friends communicate with loved ones during a health crisis. CaringBridge can help families touched by cancer receive the help they need as easily as possible.

Our online health journal lets you mass share health updates, so everyone is kept up to date with the correct information. Loved ones can comment their support on your journal entries. The CaringBridge Planner helps you coordinate needs like bringing meals, rides to doctor appointments, and taking care of pets.

If this sounds like it could be helpful for your loved one, start a free site today!

Don’t go through your health journey alone.

You can stay connected to friends and family, plan and coordinate meals, and experience love from any distance.

All of this is ready for you when you start your personal CaringBridge site, which is completely free of charge, ad-free, private and secure. Don’t spend another minute alone!

7. Pick Up the Phone

Several people mentioned phone calls as something that really helped them feel supported. Constant visitors can be overwhelming, but a phone call can offer the healing power of social support without the stress of having company.

Phone calls or video chats can also be a great way for you to connect if you live too far to regularly visit in person.

8. Pray for Them

Prayer can be powerful. One idea is to start a prayer chain for your loved one – they may feel comforted knowing that many people are supporting them through prayer and are actively thinking of them.

9. Offer Support at All Stages

It is natural to offer a lot of support when someone is first diagnosed, or if things take a turn for the worse. However, your loved ones still need support even when their health starts improving.

“Don’t forget them – so many jump in to support at beginning, then fall away when you’re recovering.”

Pam C.

One way to do this is by recognizing a cancerversary (a significant milestone in one’s cancer journey) with your loved one. Honoring where they’ve been and looking forward to a hopeful future is one great way you can offer support and love at all stages of the journey.

10. Help Out Around the House

Keeping the house clean and getting dinner on the table become much more challenging between treatments or trips to the hospital.

Offer to take on some common household errands. It’ll be a huge source of relief for them, and not too challenging of a task for yourself.

“Prepare some meals for them, go clean their house, wash their clothes, take care of errands, pay some bills for them, and just let them know you’re there!”

Barbara C.

11. Go to Chemo with Them

Going to chemo alone can get lonely. Keep your loved one company and join them for an appointment (or many). Chat with them, bring a game or simply sit and hold their hand.

“Go to radiation/chemo with them. My husband had a team from our church who took turns driving and staying with him, and my husband loved it!”

Barbara H. M. 

12. Bring Their Favorite Food

Taking a bite of a favorite food can make anyone’s day a little brighter. Bring takeout from your loved one’s favorite restaurant or cook up a big batch of their most-loved dish.

Keep in mind that cancer treatment can cause changes in appetite and/or taste, so it may be a good idea to ask what foods they currently enjoy.

“Bring them their favorite food. My daughter loved garlic mashed potatoes from a certain restaurant. Her friends would bring to her.”

Amy Elizabeth A.

13. Try Simple, Special Gestures

Sometimes it’s the simple things that make the biggest difference. Brainstorm something unique and thoughtful to do for your loved one. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out these thoughtful gift ideas for cancer patients.

“Any act of kindness is amazing when you are under the stress of cancer! I had the most amazing friend give postcards to dozens of people I know so I would get sweet notes at random times during my months of chemo. A family member gave my kids chalk to decorate the drive way when I came home from the hospital. One friend trimmed my rose bushes. One had students make me Christmas ornaments. The best people just show up and offer distraction from the hard stuff and make you feel as normal as possible!

Dana C.

14. Give Them Something to Look Forward to

The healing power of hope knows no bounds.

My sister was battling MBC. Her philosophy was “always have a ticket.” It didn’t matter if it was for a $300 a seat concert or a 50 cent carnival ticket. We sent tickets. She always had something to look forward to.”

Lisa H.

15. Respect Their Boundaries

Showing up and offering support is super important, but one thing to keep in mind is that your loved one may still need their space.

Listen to them. Have they mentioned feeling overwhelmed by visitors or phone calls? If this is the case, perhaps you can ask how to best respect their boundaries. Sometimes all it takes is recognizing them.

16. Love Them

The backbone of all these ideas is simply love. If you’re spreading that love with words and actions, your support will truly be felt.

“Love them and try your best to be there for them, then love them some more.”

Jane H.

What Are Your Support Ideas?

We hope these heartfelt ideas got the wheels turning on how you can support your loved one.

We’d like to hear it from you: what are some of the best ways you’ve offered or received support during a cancer journey? Comment below!

  • Judy Corcoran

    After nearly a year dealing with esophageal cancer, I want to emphasize how important #5 is – offer specific ways to help. Dozens of people wrote or posted “let me know how I can help” but I am a very proud, active person in my 70’s. I would NEVER ask for help; the best helper was the friend I knew only slightly who TOLD me she’d be coming over daily to empty the kitty litter pans. And she did for months. I gave her two 6th row center tickets to “Hamilton” as a thank you and now we go to lunch regularly. During months of treatment I needed drivers only five days and did ask for help then but even doing that was hard for me. And people wanted to visit – one day I had seven visitors at home; several were medical services, but otherwise I felt I had to entertain people and that was exhausting. However, I felt my cancer – which I referred to as a “journey,” never a battle – was a valuable life experience. I’m glad it happened to me and not others. Though I worry it will recur I’ve recently decided to quit worrying, to be constantly positive and to have fun and busy times, especially by helping others and my community. (I should add that I never before appreciated cancer; I thought it was like a bad flu. So one thing I did was to post on Facebook describing the experience, from losing my hair to sharing “10 things never to say to a cancer patient.” I got so many positive comments about the posts.)

  • Ed Ficenec

    My wife is a cancer survivor. When I told a friend she was a cancer patient I was corrected and told she is a survivor. She told me the minute you are diagnosed you are a survivor even if you are just starting treatment. I’ve told many this and it’s always gotten me a thank you and that they never thought of it that way.
    Also ask how the cargiver is doing. Cancer does affect both.

  • Ed Ficenec

    Also ask the care taker how are they doing. Cancer affects both.

  • Ed Ficenec

    My wife is a cancer survivor. A friend told me congratulations on her being a survivor. We were still in the chemo process. I asked what she meant since we weren’t done. She said the minute you are told you have cancer at that moment you are a survivor. I have anyone I meet that they are a survivor. Usually need to explain but each time they thank me and most say they never thought of that.

  • Karen Z

    Thank you for this information! When my mother had brain cancer (1996), there were some items that she needed that weren’t covered by insurance . I try to send a little cash in a card because I know how much that would have helped my mother if others had done that for her. Definitely send cards!

  • dp

    Please, please ask people not to ask “how are you?” I get so frustrated when even a medical staff person asks that…let alone people I see every day.
    It’s just rote, not many want a real answer. I’ve decided to reply “well enough” and the person nods and goes on. For some reason that works both ways.
    Please help me snuff out this awkward and useless greeting!!!!!! Let’s try “I’m glad to see you”. or, even, “hello there”. or “there you are!” with a smile.

    AND, never, ever launch into their own relative/friend: ex: My aunt had that and…..I couldn’t bear to hear the stories, even when assured”oh, it’s a happy ending “.

  • Tonya Walker

    I had chemo before and I might need it again. It’s hard to walk and I’m 39 years old. Help. Can’t drive either.

  • Patty Henson

    My suggestion is actually a ‘don’t’ . It’s not helpful to someone battling cancer when well-intended friends or family second guess treatments. That includes type of treatment (radiation versus surgery, for example) or location (treatment at a local clinic versus one in a nearby larger city) or specific doctors. Questioning treatment decisions like these is NOT supportive or helpful to the patient or care-givers. Don’t do it.

  • Amy N.

    My two best helpers through my cancer were my sister and my niece. My sister immediately sent cancer/nutritional books, and a motivational quote book, super-blender (for nutritional smoothies) and better yet, talked to some folks she knew who had gone through similar battles and relayed their positive news. (VERY HELPFUL). She also checked in regularly with me from across the country.

    My niece checked in with me every week or two, to see how I was doing and to share funny stories of her 3 little ones, which always made me laugh. Sometimes she would text funny or just cute pictures of her kids.

    Lots of people said “Let me know how I can help”. These two just jumped in and DID, very simply and helpfully.

    I really didn’t need much help, but these two made a tough time better!

  • Virginia Todd

    Listening can be a soothing balm. It is well worth one’s time to just LISTEN. Sending an Inspirational Expression often brightens the receiver’s mood as well.

  • Barbara M

    My husband spent great lengths of time in the hospital 40 miles away from where we lived . I was working, had a young child and was caring for my elderly parent. I always appreciated when friends would take the time and effort to visit my husband. It would give me a night off a visit. I also appreciated when people would spend time with my elderly parent (take her fir a drive, visit, do errands etc). This was true for my child — include her in their own family events , go on an outing, plan an overnight, a play date…

  • Mark Kageyama

    Great suggestions! Ty for the thought you put into this article!

  • Annette Bauer

    I waited for my friend to tell me about her diagnosis without asking intrusive questions. Just showing love is the key.