When someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer, you want to help, but may be uncertain about exactly what to do. Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation can consume enormous time and energy. Here are ways to lend a hand:
• Become the point person.
Serve as the central figure to coordinate volunteer efforts. The point person not only can assign tasks and create schedules for meal delivery, errands and childcare, but also can update others about the patient's status. This prevents the patient from being inundated with phone calls. If friends are computer-savvy, you can coordinate tasks on sites such as CareCalendar.org
You can also assist them in setting up a central information point on a site such as CarePages.com. Selected friends and family will receive notices whenever you or the patient posts updates, and can also comment there.
• Deliver food.
A patient is often too tired, weak or sick to shop, prepare meals and clean up - not to mention feeding family members, too. Yet, maintaining good nutrition is critical during treatment.
The "point person" should find out the patient's food preferences (or restrictions), then assign meal times to willing caregivers.
Place an ice chest by the front or back door for food drop-off, so the patient won't be disturbed. Or, if company is desired, plan to share the meal. Avoid creamy and rich foods; focus on lean meats, vegetables, whole grains and hearty soups. In addition to meals, provide healthy treats, such as nuts, dried fruit, whole grain muffins, fresh fruit and fruit juices to supplement nutrition when the patient isn't up for a regular meal.
• Run errands.
Everyone has routine errands. Even if a patient has time and energy, at times they may not want to go to stores and risk exposure to infections, colds and viruses. Offer to run to the grocery store, drugstore, gas station, dry cleaners and other regular spots.
• Perform chores.
There's also a never-ending list of personal, house and yard duties. Organize a group for housecleaning, yard work, laundry, pet care and other essential household tasks.
• Offer childcare.
Children demand a lot of care and attention, and are often scared and confused when a parent is undergoing treatment. Helping a child maintain a normal way of life can help ease anxiety. Offer to carpool, drive to after-school activities or baby-sit. Invite kids to your home and provide fun activities, such as baking or games. Take them to the movies or a special outing. This brings some normalcy back to their lives and helps ease the guilt a parent feels from neglecting their kids during treatment.
• Become a treatment "buddy."
Accompany the patient to doctor visits, tests and screenings. Long hours and boredom await a patient going through treatment. One to two-hour waits to see a doctor or receive radiation therapy are not uncommon, and chemotherapy infusions can take even longer. Also, depending on your relationship with the patient, it's helpful to have a second party in the exam room to take notes, since it can be difficult to absorb everything the physician says. Finally, a patient may be too drained to drive, so having a "personal chauffeur" for appointments is a much-welcomed luxury.
• Send gifts - with these considerations in mind.
Cards are always welcome, as well as anything else that's fun, humorous, comforting. "Chemo brain" can make it hard to concentrate on reading, so be sure to check on their interest level before buying books. However, audiobooks, videos and easy games can perk up a patient – particularly when they are feeling down.
Did you know that many libraries offer audiobooks and ebooks you can download into your computer or device for free? Check with your local library for this service, which is provided on an app called "OverDrive."
Be mindful that during and after chemo most patients are extremely sensitive to any scented products (candles, bubble bath, lotions, etc.), so be sure any personal products are unscented and allergy-free.
With a lowered immune system, they may not be able to receive flowers or plants, which can carry mold.
Foods may not be useful gifts, so check with the patient to see what they prefer. Taste buds have a strong reaction to chemo, and nausea is a common side effect, so what was once a favorite food or treat may no longer hold appeal.
Surgeries can make it difficult to wear regular pajamas and gowns, and scarves and headwear depend on personal style. Check with your friend for their garment needs and perhaps set up a gift registry with them.
• Offer companionship, but don't be offended if they prefer to be alone.
Cancer can make people feel isolated from the rest of the world. It removes someone from their regular way of life. They have to face their mortality and may lie awake at night, focusing on their fears. Letting someone know you are with them through every step of their journey is the best comfort you can provide.
If a patient is up for company, take time to visit one-on-one. Be aware that chemo and radiation cause frequent fatigue, and the patient may feel that they have to entertain company, despite your protests.
When they are ready for company, ask about their energy level, and be aware it can rise and fall quickly. Do something fun, like shopping or seeing a movie. Take a walk together. Have tea. Listen to their fears and frustrations. The best thing to do for someone who is suffering is to let them know they are not alone.
• Consider prayer. If you practice it – or know someone who does – do it. Many patients appreciate knowing they are on a prayer list, Reiki circle, or receiving good energy from whatever their belief system is. Cancer brings up fear of the unknown. Letting someone know you are praying for them and/or sending them healing thoughts conveys they are cared about and are not alone.
It’s about helping without overwhelming your loved one with cancer.