By heatherericksonauthor.comThe Erickson Family

Ways to Offer Help when a Friend has Cancer

Ways to Offer Help when a Friend has Cancer

Have you ever gone to the store, or a restaurant and struggled to decide between all of the great options in front of you? It’s a common problem known as “choice overload.” This term was first introduced in the book, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler in 1970. With all of these great options, choosing becomes overwhelming. It takes longer to make a decision and often the decider gives up, altogether. This is really simplifying Toffler’s theory but it’s one of the reasons why many cancer patients and caregivers decline offers of help from friends and family members. Today, I will share how to overcome choice overload and find ways to offer help when a friend has cancer using multiple-choice care coordination.

Where the burden of support lies

Usually, when someone is in need of help, we expect them to ask. It seems simple enough. People do it every day. Unfortunately, something as overwhelming as cancer can completely shut down a person’s normal ability to strategize and plan how to cope with the situation. All of their attention is focused on the medical aspect of cancer. The diagnosis process is intense. Often the patient is asked to make many appointments for test after test. They have to learn all about a disease that they likely know little about, and then make decisions about which course of treatment to pursue. At the same time, life goes on with its obligations of work, parenting, and other activities.

While it would make sense to ask for help, it feels a bit like trying to get the carnival ride operator to stop the Tilt-a-Whirl so they can get off. Instead, most patients and caregivers hope that things will soon settle down so that they can regain their balance.

As a Supportive Friend or Family Member:

When you hear that someone you care about is facing cancer or some other life-altering illness, you want to somehow help. The question is, how? What are some ways to offer help when a friend has cancer?

  • You also experience a bit of choice overload. There must be so many things that your friend needs. how can you fill the void? You wish you could just make it better, but you can’t. You might wonder how anything you think of to do, could make any difference at all.
  • It’s common to assume they must already have a lot of help. There is probably some organized system in place complete with a meal rotation, prayer chain and other ways to offer help when a friend has cancer. It’s easy to feel like you would just be one more person underfoot. Maybe they already have enough meals or rides.
  • Then, there’s the question of offering help. You want to let them know you care and that you’d like to help, but, how? What if you say something “wrong?”
  • There is also a bit of mystery surrounding the home life of someone so ill. It’s easy to picture their home as a somber place of silence. What if you call and the ring of the phone wakes your friend from a much-needed nap? We’d sure hate to bother the caregiver who, as I wrote about in the last post, may have collapsed with exhaustion. So, we put off calling.

When you offer to help

Despite all of these mental obstacles to the ways to offer help when a friend has cancer, you run into your friend at church or in the supermarket. You don’t say it because you are kind, but it’s obvious that they are frazzled by all the responsibilities of life and caring for their spouse. This is your chance to let them know you would like to help. But, how? Maybe you’ve heard that bringing a meal is helpful, but you don’t cook. You try to think of something else they might need help with, but never having had cancer, you just don’t know. So, you resort to asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Nearly always, your friend will shake their head and say, “No. I can’t think of anything right now, but thank you.” Or they will say what I often do. “Please keep us in your prayers.”

Whew! That was easy. You feel like you dodged a bullet. They know you care. Just to seal the deal you say, “Please let me know if you need anything.” You mean it with all your heart. But, your friend doesn’t call. Maybe they are doing okay. After all, if the needed anything, they would have called. Right?


Patients and caregivers are feeling overwhelmed, Caregivers, in particular, feel like it’s their job to care for their loved one. So, they try to do it all. Then, they become exhausted. Eventually, they realize they might not be able to do this alone. After all, this could be a long road and they’re wearing out fast. Who can they ask for help?

Then you see you at church or in the supermarket. You heard from another friend that their spouse is ill and you are very sympathetic. You want to help and ask if there is anything you can do. They search their overwhelmed brain, knowing that there must be something, but at the moment, they can’t think of anything. How can that be, they wonder. You say, “Please let me know if you need anything.” That’s so nice of you.

They thank you and go home.

They think, again about how nice it was that you offered to help. What could they ask of you?  They hate to ask for a meal (especially caregivers who are wives). After all, you work a full-time job and have responsibilities of your own. And while a caregiver’s to-do list is a mile long, they couldn’t ask you to help them take their car in for maintenance, or clean the garage as winter is setting in. Surely, you weren’t offering to help with that kind of thing (even though those responsibilities are weighing on them).

Some Problems

I come from Minnesota where we have the phrase “Minnesota Nice.” Sometimes we can nice ourselves out of the very thing we need.  As a caregiver who doesn’t want to be a bother to others, we hesitate to ask for help, even when it’s offered.

Most people will approach the patient, not the caregiver when they think of ways to offer help when a friend has cancer. Sometimes a caregiver would gladly accept the offer but the patient declines it, thinking it’s not really necessary. Often patients don’t realize everything a caregiver is juggling. To minimize this miscommunication, if you really want to help in some way, check with both the patient and the caregiver. This is important, even if you don’t know the caregiver as well (or at all) as the patient. This will really speak to the sincerity of your offer and will surely touch the patient and caregiver’s hearts.

Ways to offer help when a friend has cancer

When you have a loved one who you would like to help, don’t get derailed trying to do just what they need. Yes, you heard that right! The truth is, half the time, they are too overwhelmed to know what they need. Instead, follow these three steps and you will be able to help:

  1. Think about the things you are good at.
  2. Come up with three different things you can do for your friend to lighten their load or brighten their day.
  3. Then say, “I’ve been thinking about you so much, lately. I would really like to help. Here are 3 things I can offer.  Would any of them be helpful to you?”

Don’t get hung up on the number. Maybe you only have one thing. That’s okay. Three is the maximum because anything more will turn an easy decision into a hard one. The beauty in this is that you can do something you are good at, and it may be just what they need. I call this multiple-choice help.

Ways to Offer Help when a Friend has Cancer


Out of the Box ways to offer help when a friend has cancer

We have a friend who when we were moving, said, “I would really like to help you but I don’t cook. I do organize well, though. I know you are moving. Could you use my help packing? I could even bring boxes.” She was an angel from heaven! Afterall, who offers to help someone move? Only an angel.

Never feel like the thing you offer is less than what someone else may do to help. You are lifting a burden in your own special way. By offering specific help, you are also giving that person explicit permission to take you up on it. They will know you aren’t just trying to be polite.

Utilize Social Media for Care Coordination

Facing Cancer as a Friend
Grab a copy of the Updated/Revised 2nd Edition of Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone who has Cancer

While you likely won’t need to worry about the specific coordination of help (unless that is one of the ways to offer help when a friend has cancer you want to follow through on). But it is a good idea to find out which of these systems if any, that your friend is using.

We are more connected than ever by the internet. There are wonderful tools that you can use to facilitate getting help. My favorite is Caring Bridge. Many people know that it gives you the ability to update family and friends on your condition by writing a journal entry. It also has a planner. You can put anything you need help with on the planner and your friends sign up to help with any task that works for them.  I particularly like that you aren’t limited to meal requests.

If your primary need is a regular meal, Take Them a Meal is the perfect meal coordination site.

Another care coordination site is Lotsa Helping Hands. I personally didn’t find it as easy to use as Caring Bridge, because we had already built up a community on our Caring Bridge site. But if you are new to this, Lotsa Helping Hands is worth checking out.

While there are sites specializing in care coordination, some people choose to use Facebook, either just posting to their personal page, or by creating a specific page or Facebook group for the patient. Using Facebook, they can update friends and family as well as ask for help when the need arises.

And of course, there is always the good old-fashioned phone tree. This requires someone to coordinate the calendar and mobilize people, but it gets the job done. It’s also perfect for prayer requests.

A few more ways to offer help when a friend has cancer

  • Don’t feel unappreciated if they don’t send you a “Thank You” card. While that would normally be proper etiquette, understand that they are swamped, and greatly appreciate your generosity and thoughtfulness.
  • Try to bring meals in containers that you don’t need to have returned. Let them know that they can keep them or throw them if they are disposable. That way, they need not worry about whether they’re expected to get them back to you. If you do need a crockpot or other container returned, schedule a time when you can come to pick it up. Also, put your name on it.  A few times, I’ve found Rubbermaid dishes in my closet and wondered where they came from. So, the name helps.

It is a blessing to be helped, and a greater on to help a friend in need. Check out the many ways to offer help when a friend has cancer and more ideas, in my book, Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone who has Cancer.

What Are YOUR Thoughts?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!


In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on

Also, check out Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer.

Also, put your memories into words with The Memory Maker’s Journal.

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

Have any questions or comments? I would love to hear from you! By commenting, you agree to the terms of my privacy policy.

2 comments on “Ways to Offer Help when a Friend has Cancer

Hello Heather, it is sad that people don’t feel comfortable offering help for fear of offending the patient of their family. I believe, from personal experience, that if someone just gives their time to visit, or perhaps sit and chat with the patient while the care giver has some time-out can be invaluable. Just knowing that people care is important. You have some wonderful ideas for those who want to help but aren’t sure where to start. Social Media for Care Co-ordination sounds like a great idea. I also like your point about not feeling that what you are giving is of less value than someone else. Blessings to your and your family.
Sue from Sizzling Towards 60 & Beyond


Hi Sue, I think insecurity gets the best of us. Many of us don’t realize how valuable we are to those around us. We underestimate the power of the simple kindnesses we can extend. The people who tend to understand that this the most, are those who have been in a position of needing to rely on others. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we go through some of life’s trials–so we can become more compassionate to others in their time of need. Have a fabulous week!

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