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Both Sides Now: Tips on Caring for the Person with Cancer

Laura has experienced both sides (and more) of the cancer caregiving relationship. As a social worker, she spent 20 years working directly with people who were medically ill. As the daughter, sister, and wife of people with cancer, she was a care provider. As a breast cancer survivor, she was a recipient of care. As a hospital volunteer, she uses all these experiences to help others as they move through the phases of cancer treatment.

When I started writing this article, I asked Laura three questions. The first two focused on care received from friends or family members. The third question concerned care offered by professionals and hospital personnel.

How Can Family and Friends Help Loved Ones Who Are Ill?

Laura’s answer to this question continually returned to “small” gestures. “When I went for chemo treatments, I really liked it when someone came with me,” she said. “My daughter-in-law would bring a Scrabble board to the hospital, and even though I had the chemo drip in my arm, it made the time pass more quickly.”

Laura also said that letters, cards, flowers, and simply listening were always appreciated. She said that receiving books or mindless magazines was helpful, even when she was too sick to read them.

It can often be difficult for people who are ill and under treatment to care for their loved ones in the usual ways. For example, when Laura was ill, it was exhausting for her to cook meals for her family. She was fortunate to have friends who would ask if she needed groceries when they went to the store, and who would prepare food for her family. This gesture not only relieved Laura of this chore, but also made it possible for her family to focus on her, not on meal preparation.

How Can Family and Friends Help Loved Ones Who Are Ill and Far Away?

What about when you’re not nearby ? How can you hold a friend or loved one’s hand or simply read them a magazine while they float in and out of sleep if you live 3,000 miles away?

While these specific acts may not be possible, there are lots of other things you can do to help.

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The most obvious thing to do is to telephone. Laura remembered a time when her sister, who lived across the country, called in a state of panic. This sister made a routine visit to her doctor and was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital. She called Laura and said, “I’m in the hospital and I don’t want to be here and I’m so far away from everyone!” The best Laura could do was talk to her, and she did, for as long as was necessary until her sister was calmer and able to rest.

If you’ve never experienced serious illness, it may be difficult to understand how isolating illness can be. For this reason, it’s important to call the person who is ill when you can. Even if you think you have nothing to say, just saying hello can help. If there’s a group of friends or family who like to chat together, you can set up a conference call to talk and laugh for a while as a group.

What if the person who is ill doesn’t like to talk on the phone, or is too sick to want to carry on a conversation?

Some suggestions are standard: send a plant or flowers, some favorite or relaxing music, a good book, or a magazine subscription. When two of Laura’s friends, a husband and wife, were both ill, she sent them a baked ham. Two weeks later she sent them a roasted turkey. They lived in the northwoods of Wisconsin, had miles to drive to the store, and were too tired to go. When UPS delivered the ham, which they ate for a week, followed by the turkey, they were eternally grateful. And for Laura, it was comforting to know that she could still help from across the country.

Laura added, “It’s important to not feel alone. And even if family members or friends aren’t nearby , or might feel uncomfortable talking about your illness, they can always drop a line. Even receiving a simple ‘get well soon’ note can change your mood when you’re feeling blue. If you’re stuck in bed day after day, especially at the hospital, staring at the ceiling and feeling nauseous, every bit of compassion is savored.”

What Help Can (and Should) Hospital Personnel Offer People Who Are Ill?

In terms of the relationship established with medical providers, it is best to develop a collaborative approach to care. If you’re rebuffed when you ask your doctor questions, you might think about looking for a professional who is willing to work not only for you, but also with you.

When receiving treatment in the hospital, Laura strongly suggested looking for department volunteers. “Volunteers are available at many cancer departments to help patients every day, but sometimes you have to look for us. At my hospital, only one doctor makes sure that his patients know we’re there.”

In addition to volunteers, most hospitals have an ombudsperson or case manager who assists people who are in the hospital to access care options. As Laura sadly notes, however, “sometimes when you’re feeling your worst, you have to be proactive” in connecting with these individuals. But the payoff is worthwhile.

“We’re there solely to make the patients as comfortable as possible,” she said. “If it’s their first chemo treatment, we sit with them to try to reduce their anxiety. If someone’s hungry, we get food. We take pressure off the nurses so they can do their jobs as efficiently as possible, and we do our best to make a very difficult situation a little easier.”

Laura also emphasized community. “I found it extremely helpful to establish relationships with people who’d gone through the same disease as me, who’d fought, or were fighting, cancer.” She’d participated in a multi-week outpatient program for people with cancer to deal with the stresses of illness and treatment, facilitated by a social worker in the department. “Meeting the people in my workshop was great. We were all struggling, feeling sick and anxious, but we understood each other and we were able to support each other and learned new ways to support ourselves. Creating connections with other patients is extremely valuable. It can be difficult, because not everybody makes it; but there’s an unspoken understanding without sympathy or pity.”

This Could Be You

Like Laura, it is likely that many of us will experience the role of care provider as well as the role of care recipient. What we must remember is that care given in response to expressed needs is always appreciated and that “every bit of compassion is savored.” Extending ourselves when care is needed not only helps us to grow in our ability to care compassionately, but may also reduce our own fears about depending on others by bearing witness to this most human process while we, ourselves, are well.

Cancer-Related Resources on the Web

The American Cancer Society: This site provides information on many aspects of cancer care and research.

Steve Dunn’s CancerGuide: This site has an inspirational selection of stories told by people fighting cancer.

National Institutes of Health: This site provides information on current research trends in health care and treatment.

National Cancer Institute: This is a section of the NIH Web site.

Both Sides Now: Tips on Caring for the Person with Cancer

Beth Greenberg, MA

APA Reference
Greenberg, B. (2020). Both Sides Now: Tips on Caring for the Person with Cancer. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.