One of the most frequent questions I get from people is, “what can I do to help my loved one that was just diagnosed with cancer?” The answer is complicated because there is no one answer. There are people who are open to receiving any form of help from anyone, while others want to have boundaries around the type of help they receive. Also, the newly diagnosed individual may be too caught up in emotions or medical details to be able to comprehend what they need, and the needs will change over the coarse of treatment. Your loved one is fortunate to have you in their life, fortunate that you cared enough to ask the question.

The amount of help a person needs may depend upon whether they are living alone, with others, and if they have young children. However, these suggestions may be helpful to anyone. Let’s start with the practical side of things…

Depending on your loved one’s insurance plans, things are going to get costly. Money may seem impersonal, but believe me, it comes in handy! Many medical facilities charge for parking and although the patient may have their parking ticket stamped for a reduced rate, it will add up over time. I suggest you do some investigation at the location your loved one will frequent. If there is a cost for parking, ask if you can pre-purchase parking passes. If not, money for parking is a helpful gift. If you want to get creative, you could get a bunch of one dollar bills and clip them together in the amount of the exit fee. For example, if you know the patient will be charged four dollars each time they have an appointment, paper clip four dollars together and put as many bundles together as you can afford into an envelope. Label it, “parking money” and this will allow them to grab a bundle each time they have an appointment.

Becoming a Caring Bridge administrator is another way to be helpful. Caring Bridge is an online journal for those going through a medical crisis and allows everyone to keep updated on the status. Sometimes the patient themself wants to take on the journaling, as it can be cathartic, but sometimes it feels like too much to keep up. Having another person with the ability (password) to post a journal can be helpful, but it does need to be someone close to the situation.

Another great resource is Care Calendar. It is an online calendar that the patient or family member sets up, then provides people with access in order to sign up to help. It has MANY uses, but basically coordinates help that is needed by the patient/family. When you set up the account you can, for example, simply ask for meals and provide preferences, but it can also be used to coordinate rides to appointments, cargiving of children, or providing help around the home. This allows the patient to receive exactly the help they need without directly asking someone to do something for them, which is sometimes difficult.

If your loved one is going to have a surgery, such as a mastectomy, in which they will have surgical drainage tubes afterwards, one helpful item is a belt with pouches for the drainage bulbs. In particular, something that can be used in the shower. This was one of the best gifts I received! The patient may have the drainage tubes for an extended period, and they can be quite cumbersome. When dressed, the tubes can be clipped to clothing, but in the shower, it’s helpful to have a place to put the bulbs. You can search online for a post-op belt for choices or check with a local mastectomy store.

Some other things that I received after my diagnosis that were really helpful; button down soft pajamas, soft hats, soft blankets, and earrings. After a mastectomy there is pain and limited mobility, and it was helpful to have a button down pajama top. During chemo a person can get cold, so the hats and blankets came in handy. Notice with all of these things I said soft? Post surgery and during treatment your nerves are affected, and the softer materials felt the best for me. I also received pretty new earrings, which were nice when I was wearing hats and scarves, to dress up my look.

Receiving meals during chemo, for me, was huge! (In hindsight, I wish I had accepted help with meals earlier on in the process.) The fatigue from chemo is like the worst flu you’ve ever experienced. You may shower, for example, and then have to lay down immediately because just that act is so exhausting. So, while a person may be capable of preparing meals, it is helpful to have items in the freezer or a freshly prepared meal. If the patient is having a hard time eating, the family will appreciate the meal! Some chemo drugs cause a metalic taste, which leads to nausea and difficulty eating and one thing I found helpful is incorporating smoothies. If your loved one does not have a blender/smoothie maker, perhaps collecting money for, and purchasing one, could be a group gift. Indiviuals could then create smoothie bags. A simple one would be to put 1-2 cup berries, 1-2 tablespoons flaxmeal, 1/2 cup frozen spinach and 1/4 avacado in a freezer bag. Then provide a liquid, such as almond milk. I suggest doing just a few of the bags at first and see how the patient likes them and adjust ingredients for their preference. The cold, fruity flavor of smoothies was one thing I found palatable during chemo.

If your loved one does not use an online calender to coordinate helpers, when you do offer help, be specific. To say, “let me know what I can do to help,” puts a responsibility on the patient. It is better to say, for example, “I can come X day and pick up dirty laundry, and bring it back the next day.” Or, “I’m available X or X day if you need me to run errands.” By giving them examples of what you are willing to do to help, you provide the patient with the thought process of, “yes, that would be helpful.” It plants a seed and they are more willing to accept your offer.

Finally, just be there..emotionally. Allow your loved one to say anything, and know that their moods will swing drastically. There can be much fear in a diagnosis, and pressure to be positive. While I believe a positive attitude is essential to healing, it’s also essenial to acknowledge all emotions. The key is to not live in the fear. So, listen, acknowledge and consider laughter. A person CAN have cancer AND laugh. Texting or emailing your loved one a funny video will put a smile on their face. If your loved one is typically an affectionate person, don’t forget to offer a hug. If surgical sites are a concern, then hold hands. All of the things you can provide are helpful, but kind compassion in the forms of listening, sharing and affection are really what your loved one will remember when they have healed.

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