How to lend a helping hand to someone diagnosed with cancer

By Lynn C. Anderson, Director, Marketing and PR, Botsford Hospital

Lynn Anderson (from right), Linda Lee and Jennifer Moore have been close friends for more than 30 years. Moore was diagnosed with cancer in October. Anderson and Lee are an important part of her network of friends lending a hand.

In the past four months, I’ve had a good friend, a neighbor and a work colleague all diagnosed with cancer.   It brought me back to my own personal experiences, when my husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.   We had two small children, I was commuting 72 miles each day to work and he needed care round the clock.  I learned quickly how to appreciate the small things our friends, relatives and co-workers did to help us cope; and that it is okay to accept help from those who care.

So when people ask how they can help, here are a few suggestions based on my experiences. I find that the things you can do may depend on your relationship with the person so I’ve broken my suggestions into three categories:  A close friend, a neighbor and a co-worker.

How to support a close friend diagnosed with cancer or other illness:

I met my dear friend some 30 years ago when we were both young working mothers.   We supported each other through child-rearing, divorce, career decisions, death of a spouse, wedding planning and parents’ illness.  We know each other well so when she called to say she had cancer, I wanted to do as much as I could to help her.  Here’s what I found to be most helpful:

  1. Be a second set of ears to listen during doctor visits, second opinions and early chemo treatments.   A cancer diagnosis is complicated and it helps to have someone else hear what health professionals are saying.
  2. Help with research.   Help with online research and help them understand the disease, treatments and other important issues such as social security, work and insurance benefits and eating right.
  3. Spread the word and coordinate help. is a great way to connect a patient’s entire community, creating a network for support for everyone involved.
  4. Support other family members.   A serious illness affects the entire family.   Offer to give a loved one a bit of time away, help with household chores or meals or just a chat to see how they are doing.
  5. Fulfill a wish. It doesn’t have to be a BIG wish.  We often talked about the fact we never had taken photos of ourselves together, so we hired a photographer to come to dinner one evening to take some shots we’ll all enjoy for years to come.

How to support a neighbor diagnosed with cancer or other illness

Our neighbor has found it is the little things that have helped so much.   It has also been a way for the neighborhood to come together and get to know one another better. Here are some things my neighborhood does to help support our neighbor diagnosed with cancer:

  1. Arrange a meal or transportation — One neighbor coordinates meals and another arranges trips to physician appointments and chemo treatments when our neighbor isn’t able to drive.    Those neighbors able to help with driving or a meal sign up for a day.
  2. Meals or other items are dropped off at another neighbor’s home, who sees that the items get to the patient.
  3. One neighbor makes homemade bread and stops in for a chat every Saturday morning.  Another neighbor calls or texts during the week for short chats, especially the days before a doctor appointment, the next PET scan or when he senses she is down.  He calls first, makes sure the visit is short and never goes in if he thinks he is getting sick.
  4. Other neighbors check in when going to the grocery store, pharmacy or dry cleaner to see if she needs anything.
  5. A teen offered to shovel snow this winter and is already planning to plant and water flowers for her porch this spring.
  6. “Secret Neighbors” have found random ways to show they care with a jar of hot fudge, a new magazine, a coffee gift card or putting the newspaper right at her doorstep so she doesn’t have to go down the sidewalk in the cold to pick it up. She doesn’t know who these neighbors are – they just leave little gifts and notes at her door.

How to support a co-worker diagnosed with cancer or other illness

When one of our Botsford Hospital co-workers learned she was diagnosed with cancer, everyone wanted to jump in to help.  She was always the one making special treats, decorating the office for a holiday or telling the funny joke.   Here is how we have helped:

  1. Donation of paid time off (PTO).  Not all employers provide this benefit, but at Botsford Hospital, employees can donate vacation or sick time (PTO) to a pool of funds to help a family’s financial burden.
  2. Get Well Cards.  This co-worker touches the lives of many seniors in her work, so we encouraged them to send greeting cards.  In less than six weeks, our co-worker has gotten more than 100 cards.
  3. A call, an email, a note, a text all are ways we stay in touch.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

In addition to family and friends, social workers or health care navigators can help a patient find additional assistance.   The important part is to take advantage.   Friends, family and coworkers want to help.   It’s a way we can all feel better. Below are a few valuable resources, many of which are free:

  1. Most hospitals have personal support groups for the patient and the family helping with emotional needs.  Botsford has a number of groups and other cancer support resources.
  2. Gilda’s Club provides activities for patients and the entire family.
  3. The American Cancer Society has information on different cancers, treatments, research, end of life programs and support services in your area.
  4. Churches and other community groups also provide support to people at home and while in the hospital.
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