How to Help a Parent Undergoing Cancer Treatment

October 25th, 2010 by Dionna | 13 Comments
Posted in Community Service, Compassionate Advocacy, natural parenting

  • Email This Post

This post is the first in a four part series in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I am collaborating with Jen, who writes at The Dinoia Family, and Sarah, who writes at Balancing Act and who authored What Not to Say.
Cancer has touched the lives of all three of us: Sarah is a cancer survivor, Jen has recently been diagnosed with cancer, and I helped my grandmother live her last days peacefully at home after a battle with cancer.
Chances are, cancer has touched your life or the life of someone you love, too. It is our hope that this series of posts will be a help and a comfort to you.

Please visit Sarah’s site tomorrow for her thoughts on how to talk to young children about cancer.
Visit Jen’s site Wednesday for some practical (and poignant) advice on what to say – and what not to say – to a person who is newly diagnosed.
And come back to Code Name: Mama on Thursday for an interview with the Executive Director of Cleaning for a Reason, a non-profit dedicated to helping women undergoing cancer treatments.


Have you ever had a friend, family member, or coworker get diagnosed with cancer (or another life-threatening illness), but you had no idea how to help them? If you’ve never experienced a serious illness, you may not know exactly how to reach out to someone who is facing one.

With help from several knowledgeable readers and friends, I’ve compiled a list of ways you can help, from the general to the specific – as well as things to remember while you are helping – someone who is undergoing cancer treatment (or something similar).

I hope that you will be moved to offer your help to someone you know.

General Tips

A few general things to keep in mind when offering your help.

  1. Offer. Be Specific. Be Persistent. The most important thing you can do is to offer your help. Because your friend may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of her situation, try to be specific about how you can help.
    “Can I rake your yard? I noticed your trees lost your leaves this week!”
    “Can I take the kids out to the pumpkin patch this weekend? We’re going and want some company!”
    “Can I come in and dust and vacuum for you? There has been so much pollen and I know that your partner suffers from allergies!”
    If your friend says no the first or the second or the third time, offer again. While this round of chemo may not find her wanting help, the next round might.
  2. Be Germ-Conscious. Remember that your friend’s immune system is compromised right now. A cold can actually be deadly. If you find yourself coughing and sniffling when it’s time to go drive your friend to her chemo appointment, you should find someone to take your place. Talk to your friend about what s/he can handle: are children welcome? Should visitors be kept to a minimum for a certain time period? Should extra precautions be in place?
    When you do visit, cough/sneeze into your shoulder (not into your hands or a tissue). Always wash your hands thoroughly and use hand sanitizer. But be sensitive about walking around with gloves or a mask – your friend might not want to feel like her house is a hospital.
  3. Children – To Bring Them or Not? Ask your friend. Children may be just what the doctor ordered for some people – they crave the innocence, the energy, the exuberance. For others, children may be too germy (even if your kids aren’t sick, they carry germs), too boisterous, too exhausting. Encourage your friend to be honest and let her know that you have childcare available and can come sans kids.1
    If you are unsure whether your children are welcome, err on the side of caution and leave them at home.
  4. Don’t Be Afraid to Laugh. Humor can indeed be the best medicine, especially when your free time is consumed with researching illness and cures. So share funny stories and jokes, find tasteful humorous books and cartoons to send your friend, find ways to tickle her funny bone, and laugh right along with her. You will never regret those moments of levity.
  5. Coordinate. If you are local to your friend and there are several people who are volunteering to help, coordinate your efforts. Assigning one person to take care of the phone calls and details will reduce your friend’s work and stress load.
  6. Think of the Family. While one person in the family might be ill, the rest of the family members are struggling too. When you’re trying to find ways to be helpful, think of your friend’s partner, children, and other support persons. What could you do to help make their lives happier/easier?

Specific Tips

Here are a few specific tasks might be appreciated.

  1. Yard Work: Mowing, raking leaves, trimming trees and bushes, weed wacking, cleaning the pool, watering flowers, weeding the garden . . . you name it, you can help with it. Remember that many people with a serious illness tire quickly, so they simply cannot get yard work done without an enormous effort. Volunteering to do yard work also means that, once you have their blessing to help, you can stop by without coordinating it (or without worrying about germs).
  2. Drop Off Healthy Meals: Frozen dinners that parents can thaw and bake on nights when they are too tired or stressed to cook are a big help. Make sure you know whether there are any food allergies, sensitivities, or preferences to keep in mind.2 Be sure to ask whether there is anything that tastes better when your friend is undergoing chemotherapy (for example, they may avoid spicy foods due to nausea).
  3. Taxi Driver: Offer to drive – drive your friend to chemo treatments, drive your friend’s children to school or practices, drive to the store, drive to doctor appointments, etc
  4. .Be a Friend: You know your friend – what would make her smile right now? What would make her laugh? What if members of your MNO3 group took turns accompanying her to chemo? They could give her a manicure during treatments, play cards, rub her head when it starts getting itchy. What if you brought a movie and snacks over to her house for a family movie night? (You could stay or leave, depending on her preference.) What if you watched her kids so she and her partner could go out on a date? Think about what makes your friend happy and arrange to do it.
  5. Research: Ask before you do this (because your friend may be too overwhelmed), but you could offer to collect information on support groups, diet, special services for cancer patients, etc. Your friend will probably have enough information on her prognosis and treatment, but oncologists often don’t include those other things in their patient information packet.
  6. Spend Time with the Children: Kids are under stress too – not only is their parent sick, not only are they frightened of the unknown, but they are also often dealing with related disruptions in their own lives and schedules. Make sure they can get to their activities. Make sure that they have fun – take them out for normal activities, and be available if they need someone trusted to confide in. Please keep in mind, though, that your friend may want to join you when you take the kids – they may miss having light-hearted fun, so offer to take the whole family or the kids.
  7. Clean: If your friend is willing to let you help, offer to clean for her. Dust, vacuum, do laundry, wash her car – think about the everyday tasks that she may not have the energy for. Use her cleaners or offer to bring environmentally-friendly ones with little or no fragrances or harsh chemicals. Ask her what cleaning is the most important to her – both in terms of making her life easier and in terms of what dirt/mess might exacerbate her symptoms.4
  8. Shop: Help with the regular grocery shopping. Take the kids for back-to-school shopping. Offer to go out and get her Black Friday deals before the holidays. Be available to brave the germ-ridden masses for her!
  9. Minor Maintenance: Are you a handy-person? A fixer-upper? A DIY’er? Make yourself available for the inevitable little tasks around the house: winterize for them, change the air filters and smoke detector batteries, change the oil in their cars, fix a dripping faucet.
  10. Decorate: Is there a holiday approaching that your friend usually celebrates? Help put up her spooky Halloween display. Help her hang ornaments on the Christmas tree or decorate for Yule. Bring her everything she’ll need to do an egg hunt in celebration of Easter or Ostara.
  11. Pray/Think Positively: Regardless of your religion or that of your friend, lift her up in your thoughts and prayers. Send her positive energy.
  12. Pump: Yes, pump breastmilk. Scientific studies have shown that breastmilk kills cancer cells. Some cancer patients are taking that research to heart and drinking breastmilk. One of my readers donates her breastmilk regularly to a friend with cancer.
  13. Everyday Tasks: Think about the everyday things that might be insurmountable during chemo treatments: sending bills, addressing holiday cards, returning books to the library, getting lunches packed for the kids. How could you help lessen the regular load?
  14. Visit: Spend time with her! Listen, but don’t force her to talk. She is still your friend, and she needs you! Keep in mind that she might want your companionship more than just your help. Think about doing some of the things on this list with your friend.

Have you helped a friend with a serious illness? Have you ever needed the help of others? If you have other suggestions of how to help families experiencing a serious illness, please leave your ideas in the comments.


My thanks goes to the women who helped me with me these wonderful ideas. They shared through their own experiences with cancer – their own or that of a love one. I must confess, I sobbed while I read through some of their emails. My grandmother died of cancer, and I was blessed and honored to help my mother take care of grandma during her final months. I dare say that all of us have been touched by cancer in some form – or will be. I hope that this will assist a reader who loves someone with cancer.

Here are the women and mamas who contributed to this article:

Amy; April of McApril; Hayley of Ramblings of an Acrophile; Kristine, a WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor who generously donates her own breastmilk to a woman undergoing cancer treatment; Laura; Maya of Musings of a Marfan Mom; Natalie; and Tonia

  1. If, of course, that is the truth. If not, arrange a time you can come without your children.
  2. Think vegetarian/vegan, kosher, etc.
  3. Mom’s Night Out
  4. For example, she might be very sensitive to dust, and so she might want you to clean the fan blades instead of vacuum the car.

13 Responses to:
"How to Help a Parent Undergoing Cancer Treatment"

  1. Acrophile

    Your links regarding breastmilk killing cancer cells and the research involved have generated an “error 404”. Where might I find those pages? It’s a brilliant idea. I’d like to present it to my MIL and see if she’d be interested. I am still nursing my 21mo and I’m sure I could up my supply by pumping and if I could prove it might benefit her she might go for it.

  2. Amber   AmberStrocel

    My mother-in-law had a mastectomy this month, so we’re in the thick of it.

    I would add that it’s important not to be too sensitive yourself. When someone is struggling, they really don’t need to deal with your feelings. Realize that they’ve got bigger fish to fry, and get over yourself.

  3. Sarah@EmergingMummy   emergingmummy

    My husband’s best friend is walking this road right now – his wife was diagnosed. Our hearts are broken but this is an excellent resource. I will say, I have been so impressed by the community around them – how much people have loved them and served them. Almost everything on this list, I have heard is happening (we live in another country and so are unable to do “hands on” stuff ourselves). Thanks for putting this together!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      That’s so hard :(
      If you have any tips on how to support a friend long distance, I’d love to add them. I was having trouble coming up with anything myself!

      • Grace Potts

        When our G-dson was diagnosed and lost all his hair, our family shaved our heads in solidarity… And we sent him the pictures with a “get well” banner. He is almost to recovery, and he keeps the picture framed on his bedroom wall.

  4. Jenn

    I’m surprised to find all these posts here for Breastcancer Awareness..the pink ribbon.. etc.

    I would think that a person living the holistic life would realize that there ARE cures. They’re natural. But government agencies, organizations, etc are never going to go the route of least profit. DRUGS DRUGS DRUGS! Cancer-causing chemicals shoved into the bloodstream! Cancer-causing radiation! THIS is the route we shall go!! Yes!

    Give money or support to that???? Not I. I much prefer to keep people cancer free or get rid of their cancer, thank you.


    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Jenn – I wonder where in any of these posts you see that I’m advocating for chemotherapy, etc. What I’m talking about is supporting people who are experiencing cancer. The simple fact of the matter is that we have loved ones who are experiencing cancer. While I am all for finding natural cures and more importantly, preventing cancer, I am also in favor of supporting those who are currently ill. There is nothing wrong with being kind to someone by raking their leaves or taking their kids out.

    • Tammy

      I think supporting Breast Cancer Awareness is appropriate regardless of the manner in which that person chooses to combat the disease. I didn’t note any sort of stance taken on how cancer should be fought, but rather a call to support those who are ill. Also, number 5 (Research) speaks to providing information about the illness and less available related information, which could prove to unearth some of those alternative solutions for a friend so that she is fully informed when making her treatment decisions.

    • Kim

      Jenn, the problem is that many, many people do not trust “alternative” treatments. My mother has stage three cancer, and I did so much research on natural cures. I’ve begged her to consider juicing, lymphatic draining, and yes, breast milk! She is NOT interested. I am still doing my darndest to support her and HER choices. I found this post to be very helpful!

    • Debra

      I agree that ridding cancer and using more holistic approaches is ideal, yet many people are still soaking in more commercial ideas. As I read the article, I did have the visual of a person sick from chemo but that is b/c I have seen more of that even though I believe in alternatives. The “pink ribbon” seems to symbolize the popularization of breast cancer research/awareness yet I feel the point of this article is extremely vital to healing. In any given situation, one needs to weigh all the pros and cons and may choose a medical intervention b/c it feels “safer” (b/c they know more about). As a family member or friend, it is more helpful to support and love them through what ever decision they make. Judging or second-guessing a person’s decision even if it may seem “healthier,” will stress the person and your relationship, exacerbate the symptoms, and impede the healing process. I thought the article gives specific suggestions for support and encourages healing.

  5. An additional helpful option is creating an online support system for your loved one with cancer. I recommend the Human Tribe Project. You create a tribe for the cancer patient, invite friends and family to join, update the journey as often as desired, people can comment and offer words of encouragement, love, support. The site is free. The unique part about HTP is they offer tribe members the option to purchase a tribe tag necklace with the patient’s inital engraved. The proceeds go directly to helping with medical expenses. It’s an awesome organization!
    The benefit to the online support system is the availability of sharing one’s story to all who care ONCE and the response from others is emotionally empowering!

  • Grab my new badge!

    Visit Code Name: Mama

  • Visit Natural Parents Network
  • Display & participate!

    Visit Code Name: Mama

  • Carnival of Weaning

    Carnival of Weaning