It’s obvious that receiving a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming. As a result, friends and loved ones often feel powerless. They think there’s nothing they could possibly do that will make a difference.
At Support Connection, we know that’s not true at all. Even the smallest act of kindness can make a bad day better for someone coping with cancer.
We asked women with breast and ovarian cancer to tell us about words or actions that made a difference for them while they faced diagnosis and treatment. The simple things that offered comfort or support when they most needed it.
Thirty-eight women readily shared their answers! Their responses were amazing and heartwarming, filled with wisdom and inspiration. Take some time to read these stories and suggestions, and keep them in mind if you know someone dealing with cancer.
“One friend told me to take care of me, and showed me how to relax by listening to music, reading a light-hearted book, lighting fragrant candles. Another friend helped me fold laundry when my arms were hurting from my bilateral mastectomy. One friend made me soup. Another friend made delicious gooey brownies. All were very soothing.” Donna A.
“When I first learned I had cancer I felt so alone. I had no family nearby. Two different friends offered to come with me on my appointments. I didn’t want to impose, but I was nervous to go my first oncology appointment, so I said yes. I felt touched by my friend’s caring and support. Another friend came with me to my first radiation treatment. She’d been through it years before and it helped tremendously to talk about it with her.” Ellen S.
“After every chemo treatment, my husband bought me a rose. I received 7 pink roses, then 1 red rose when I completed my last treatment. Of course, I didn’t look forward to treatment, but getting that rose always put a smile on my face. I dried the 8 roses and nine years later they are still in a vase of my desk. Support and a kind gesture from the heart goes a long way.” Bella P.
“My family (son, daughter, 2 nieces and sister-in-law) sent me gift cards to our local restaurants so neither my husband or I had to worry about cooking. My sister-in-law also cooked a complete turkey breast for dinner.
One of the most outstanding things that happened was a beautiful plant was delivered about a week after my surgery with a pink ribbon. I read the card and cried; it was from my plastic surgeon wishing me well!! I still have the plant 4 years later! He is the most caring doctor I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
Also I could not forget my wonderful caring husband who always made me feel good about myself and always gave me that big hug I needed while taking care of me every day and never leaving my side!!” Kathleen M.
“Living in a 55+ community we have a committee called ‘Helping Hand.’ I had people call me daily asking if they could drive me to treatment, pick up anything for me, do errands such as cleaners, bank, post office, or just keep me company. It’s wonderful and reassuring. My suggestion is: show love, care, nurturing. Check in daily. Never say ‘Do you need anything?’, most people are inclined to say no thanks. Instead, say ‘How can I help you?’ ” Cecile W.
“I was diagnosed a few days before Christmas 2011: HER2 , Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. The emotional roller-coaster was as draining as the physical journey. I was blessed by joining a wonderful support group.
To answer the question…..What can I say or do? How can someone help? What words offer the most comfort or support? What actions, large or small, make a positive difference? When I’m asked, this is what I say to those newly diagnosed:
Remember Gracie Allen’s advice: ‘Never place a period where God has placed a comma.’ You stepped down a road you had no intention of traveling but you will get through this. The important things are be good to yourself and don’t try to do it alone. Allow yourself to accept help. As women, we try to do it all. But this is your time to take care of you. Lose the guilt.
Learn to ask for what you need. Clearly communicate your needs to anyone who offers support. Let them know specifically what you need. …….”can you put the kettle on for me? ” “can you water my flowers”. Friends feel so much better knowing this is what helps you. I am eternally grateful to my neighbor who brought me mac n cheese when I needed it!
There’s no crash course for Cancer 101…..You can never learn all there is to know but you can Control the information overload that makes your head spin by writing things down, have someone you trust write things down then address them. It’s less overwhelming when it’s on paper. Stay positive, laugh, don’t lose your sense of humor.” Nancy M.
“Listen. Try to avoid ‘puppy dog eyes’ every time you see us. Ask how it’s going. Ask about side effects and try to help (rides to and from chemo, soup after treatments, go along to hairdresser if head needs to be shaved.) A pretty scarf is nice: to wear now to brighten the day, and use later if our hair falls out.
Admire our strength. Tell us we’re beautiful. My husband bought me a wonderful card telling me what a beautiful woman I was, 2 weeks after I had to have my head shaved. It meant a lot and was very unexpected.
Make some heat-and-eat meals we can eat based on our symptoms. Clean up the kitchen right after meals; the lingering smell can make us nauseous. Let us sleep. Buy us flowers ‘just because.’ Take us someplace fun when we’re feeling pretty good. Love us a lot.” Elaine B.
“After my surgery, a group of my friends chipped in for a substantial gift card to a local restaurant. My family was able to order numerous dinners for delivery. It made life a little easier. Once I felt stronger, when the girls were going out for lunch, they’d call and say they were picking me up. My cousin who lives in IL sent me 4 containers of chocolate mint chip ice cream, my favorite! It was crazy and I’m sure very expensive for ice cream! I thought it was a cool thing to do; it meant a lot.” Beth G.
“When I was undergoing chemo, I received a package in the mail from a childhood friend I hadn’t seen in years. In it was the children’s book The Little Engine That Could. This small gesture meant the world to me and I will always treasure that book. Brenda M.
“Some things people can say that are helpful: Can I run errands? Can I drive you somewhere you need to go? Can I do your food and drug store shopping? Can I bring over a meal?” Pat B.
“My friend dropped a card in the mail every few weeks just to let me know she was thinking about me. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was inspirational. She told me afterwards she looked for cards that reminded her of me. It meant the world to me to get those cards. I still have all of them.” Danielle C.
“Don’t just say ‘Let me know if I can do something.’ DO SOMETHING. Call and say ‘I’m coming over to clean your house or do your laundry or walk your dog. And while I’m coming let me bring you some soup. Make a list and I’ll do your food shopping.’ Lots of people offer help and tell you to call but that’s not enough. Actually do it; don’t wait for that call.” Diane L.
“The most helpful thing people did after my diagnosis was just letting me know that they cared. My mom and sister made a trip from Florida right after my surgery just to be with me. My family and friends called often. It was a very terrifying time, and it really meant so much to me to know that people cared enough to reach out.” Patty I.
“When friends hear that you have Cancer, they are generally concerned and often ask, what can I do to help…? While undergoing and even after treatment, you do not look your best , you do not feel your best, and all you want to do is feel normal. So one of my friends did all the food shopping, brought her whole family to my house, cooked us all dinner and we sat around the table and ate and laughed.
One friend came over every single week and cut my grass and tended to the outside. Two other friends checked in on me every day, whether by phone or popping in to say hi, often with amusing uplifting stories. Another friend drove me to and from chemo every week.
The list goes on and on. The point is, when you want to help someone, follow through, don’t make empty gestures. Do what you can, because anything helps, and everything is appreciated.” Laura O.
“I was so grateful to a friend who lived miles away (in fact, on the other side of the earth) always remembering the small but important days of my cancer journey. She’d drop me a quick email on the morning I was scheduled for a follow up visit or the day a pathology result was scheduled to come out. I couldn’t believe how someone so far away could support me and keep me going. It made me feel I wasn’t alone. I had a great cheerleader.” Junko M.
“One thing that really touched me: My co-workers held a ‘hat drive’ for me. I was very open about my cancer/treatment and a friend knew I didn’t plan to get a wig. My treatment started in January and by early February I had lost my hair. The winters are relatively mild here but you still get pretty cold when you don’t have any hair! I came to work one day and saw a flyer that had been distributed within the company asking people to donate hats. I got over 20 new hats! I started sending texts to my friends entitled ‘Hat of the Day’ with a photo of me in my various hats! I’m not much of a hat person, and I rarely wear hats now that my hair has returned, but it was fun to have so many options at a time when you really don’t feel (or look) like yourself. And I still have all the hats displayed in my closet!” Christine F.
“I lived by the Serenity Prayer and wear a bracelet that says it; this prayer helped me tremendously: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Some other helpful messages I received from loved ones, friends and coworkers were:
Live your life and stay in the present… Stay positive and take one day at a time…. Continue to have faith in God and pray often because he will help you and release your burdens to him… Release all the bad energy and breathe in the good energy… Not to worry about what could happen; focus on today and not worry about tomorrow… Appreciate the little things in life that we take for granted each day… Live your life and stay in the present… When you feel yourself getting frustrated and having bad thoughts stop and hit the reset button; stop yourself from continuing the bad thoughts.” Joanne N.
“My boyfriend made a big difference in dealing with my cancer right from when I was diagnosed. He took charge of going and meeting with my doctors and he sat with me during all my chemo. He made me strong and still has kept me strong even now as I go through reconstruction. He encouraged me never to give up and to fight hard to beat my cancer.” Barbara M.
“When I was first diagnosed, my friends made me a blessing box and put it outside my door so that people could come by, write a note, slip it in the box and I could read them at my leisure. The blessing was that I did not have to entertain and drain my already chemo depleted energy, and the loving words helped me heal.” Karen N.
““The day I was diagnosed the first thing my husband said to me was: ‘Nothing else matters. We’re going to get through this.’ His positive attitude has kept both of us going during this roller coaster of a journey.
My best friend used vacation time to come from upstate New York for every one of my surgeries. She was a tremendous support to me and it was an incredible relief to know someone was there with my husband, to be sure he ate and in general provide the support he needed but wouldn’t ask for.
My best friend at work said “I will only say this once. I would do anything in the world for you, all you have to do is ask.” We’ve traded morning texts over the last 5 years even if it’s just about the weather.
A neighbor baked my favorite cookies. The woman who did some housekeeping for me stopped by with an enormous amount of Italian food. My aunt, friends and co-workers regularly sent cards and email chronicling what was going on in their worlds. All were so thoughtful and a welcomed distraction.
I’m grateful every day for every one of these angels and their acts of kindness.’ Julie H.
“My son has just been diagnosed with a very rare stage 4 cancer of the appendix. I have been in this situation before and thought I experienced everything. To me right now the most fulfilling are acts of kindness. Not saying call me if you need me; call the person, don’t text. I have found when I hear a person’s voice and can genuinely hear their compassion, you can feel the comfort that they are truly there for you. Those of my very close friends who have not shied away are there to listen as I cry maybe scream and know that there is someone there for you. I found that those that are doing, helping with research, calling if I am up to going out for lunch or dinner offering there company is the most appreciated things for me right now.” Nadine G.
“My sister organized a SignUpGenius for friends and family to provide dinner for me and my family for 4 weeks. I can’t even express what a tremendous help and how wonderful it was. Due to my surgery I was in extreme pain and in no shape to cook. These wonderful people cooked meals then delivered them in person. They also ate with us, which was the best part. Some were friends I hadn’t seen in a while. It was such a blessing not only to have them bring us food, but to join us in the meal. People want to help and often don’t know how. This gives them an opportunity to help us in such a simple and loving way and we should allow them to. The laughter alone while sharing a meal with these dear people, that they prepared for us, was worth so much and such a balm to my soul. I think it nourished both our souls, and I strongly believe had a huge part of my recovery.” Vencine M.
“One thing I still remember is that my gynecologist specifically waited to call me with the news that I had breast cancer until the evening when she was sure that my husband would be right there with me. She was so supportive and guided me through my whole journey, recommending an excellent surgeon and oncologist.” Karen P.
“I remember the awkwardness that some people had not knowing what to do or say when I was diagnosed, and it made me often think how I would handle the situation if it were me trying to bring comfort to someone. A while ago I read a Facebook post which has stuck with me and is in my memory arsenal to use when needed. It said to simply say ‘I am here for you, I love you, lead the way.’ Having been on the ‘you have cancer’ end, I find these words powerful and comforting. I also found that those who went out of their way to cook meals when I was recovering was something I will never forget and was so helpful. Others have told me they have cleaned friends’ homes.” Margaret Z.
“I’d like to share a message I received from my youngest son. He wrote this to me on my first day of Chemo. When I was diagnosed with Stage 2 HER2 positive Breast Cancer, he was in his junior year at the University of Albany. He graduated in May of this year, and is planning on entering Law school to practice Elder Law. His love and faith in me helped me through some very difficult times. My support and love from my family have helped me to become a Breast Cancer Survivor!
Here’s what he wrote: ‘This past March, my mother was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. While many people see being diagnosed with any form of cancer as a death sentence, she saw it as just another “bump in the road.” After countless doctor appointments and a few surgeries, she’s still going strong. Today she started her first round of chemotherapy and while I was completely freaking out, she sent me this photo. My mother, Maria Watson, is the strongest person I have ever met and WILL be a cancer survivor. She’s been a role model to me every single day of my life and this is just another example of it. I love you Mama W!’” Maria W.
“My church and my son’s high school blessed us with meals, They alternated every week for about six or eight weeks: One week Monday through Friday someone in the school would bring us a meal, and the other week Monday through Friday someone from my church would bring us a meal. Many times I didn’t know who brought the meal because they left it in the cooler they provided in front of my house. As far as I know and heard there were people that I knew and there were people I never even knew. They were so kind; I felt like there were “angels ” to help us in our time of need. I will never forget that, God sent these wonderful people in our life.” Rose M.
“At diagnosis and during cancer those closest to me treated me normally without fear in their eyes or pitying looks. I cherished that. It made me realize that I’m still me with the same hopes and dreams. Someone said to me ‘It’s ok to feel vulnerable, it’s what makes us human.’ Those words came at just the right time.” Anne S.
“Even when it doesn’t seem like we are listening, we hear what you say and can remember it later when we need it most. Emotional support and what to say? To me it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3… and 3 ½ or maybe 4, then more:
(1) Fight fear by being involved: My gynecological oncologist surgeon said, ‘I want you to stop thinking of numbers. (Stages) You need to focus on healing.’ We went on to talk about what I could do to help heal myself. She asked about my support group (family, friends, spiritual community and more), encouraged me to be active in my healing, ask questions, talk to and explore/utilize cancer care services- like the dietician, social services, survivor groups and continue my healthy support activities: meditation, yoga and walking my dogs by a creek.
(2) Laughter and hugs: When I was at my lowest point, all fear and despair, my oldest son, who lives four states away, was talking to me on the phone and told me, ‘I’ve met the woman of my dreams and we’re engaged and there will be a grandbaby. But! Not for 5 or 6 years, so you have to Live! Sit! Stay! Good Mama!’ I had to laugh. He kept me talking until my younger son got off work, came to me, and hugged me.
(3) Encourage gently and with love: Several of my friends said encouraging and kind things. My best example is my friend, Glenda. She drew a sketch and gave it to me. She said, ‘You are a fierce heart and a winner.’ I kept that with me each time I had chemo. Then I started drawing Zen doodle hearts with that quote on small pieces of paper to hand out at chemo. If someone has said something that helped you through a hard time, pass it on or pay it forward.
(4) Ask if they need to talk. Then listen: My oncology nurse always answers my questions, always encourages but most importantly she listens. She listens actively, approving the activities I do that give me inner peace and shares information connected with whatever has me calling.” Meredith G. B.
“After my bilateral mastectomy one of my friends came to my house, picked me up and took me to have my hair washed and blow dried! So wonderful!” Sue J.
“A good friend came to my interview appointments while I was choosing my surgeon. After we met with the two different doctors within a week of each other, I knew which doctor I wanted to be my surgeon. I wanted my friend’s opinion too, though, that’s why I had brought her along, and she took copious notes. We didn’t want to influence each other’s choice, so like school girls, we wrote our choice on separate little pieces of paper, folded them up and exchanged them with each other. We both squealed with joy that we had chosen the same wonderful surgeon. Anyone watching this from afar would never had guessed that I was facing breast cancer surgery… they would have thought that we won the lotto. … which is what happened when my friend was there for me through this difficult process.
Another good friend was there for me when I had to have an MRI. I am so claustrophobic that I hyperventilate just thinking about it! She promised me that she would come into the MRI room with me and support me throughout. Little did she know that I would be on very good prescription relaxers to help me get through this. She came with me, made sure that I could hear her and see her feet if I dared to open my eyes. She laughed with me, not at me, as I said the craziest things during this ordeal which I fell asleep through thanks to my pharmacist and to my friend’s calming nature.
A fellow teacher made a beautiful quilt for me with a saying about how cancer will not stop me. My team teacher was there for me through the 7 weeks of radiation. I would open her classroom door and she would see the look of exhaustion on my face. Without hesitation, she would tell me to go take a nap and she would cover both of our classes. I never needed a long nap but she was there to give me the strength to get through another class.
And of course, my loving husband. After the surgery, he wanted me to recuperate for 3 weeks at our place in Naples Florida. My surgeon said that there was no way I would be able to fly – so my husband drove me down! What a nice way to spend that time.
Also: so many calls and cards. And friends understanding that if I didn’t want to think about what was to come, or worry about it, then we could talk about something else.” Elizabeth P.
“The best thing my friends did was visit from far and wide. We talked about the past and made plans for the future so we’d all have something fun to look forward to. Next best thing? My surgery was right before Christmas; friends invited our children for play dates, slumber parties, etc. so I could rest and they could still have fun.” Debra P.
“My coworkers at the hospital collected donations for me and one of the nurses stopped by my house with a card, I really didn’t expect any money, just their well wishes meant so much to me. When I opened the card there was over $800 and I was shocked; everyone signed the card and some of the people I didn’t even know that well. The love and support from my ICU family was really appreciated, not to mention that money went to pay for much needed house cleaning.
My sisters-in-law took my kids (ages 5 and 7) to their houses for a week when I had surgery. That was a huge help. The year after surgery my kids asked if I could have another surgery so they could go stay with their cousins.
My 70 year old mother slept at my bedside the night after surgery because my husband had to be home with the kids. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and my mom helping me to the bathroom. I guess you are never too old to have your mom take care of you; I think it was harder for her than it was for me.
I received a card from one of my mother-in-law’s friends. Her card said ‘Welcome to the club, no one wants to join.’ I had no idea she was a breast cancer survivor but she offered her support and I felt lucky to have her in my life, knowing if she made it through this, then I would too.
Even a random stranger approached me on the beach while I was on vacation with my family in North Carolina. I was wearing a sun hat and my bathing suit and had recently had bilateral mastectomies. She simply said “you will beat this, just like I did.” Sue A.
“The person that most inspired me and opened my eyes to making lemonade from lemons when I was first diagnosed was a woman who has been working as a group instructor for over 15 yrs. at the club where I work as a personal trainer. She said: take your diagnosis and become a trainer and a role model to help survivors. My motto is: everyone is entitled to a workout. If it means modifying or working around set or ever changing restrictions then so be it!! She was the driving factor for helping me become a fitness trainer and a certified cancer wellness specialist, and to turn my diagnosis of breast cancer into one that can be a way to show survivors that if I can do it, they can too.” Jennifer S.
“My husband was my rock. He drove, cooked, managed the house and never cracked, not once. He held my hand and helped me know all would be okay. He let me know I had his full support with all the decisions I faced. My mother and sister acted as a filter for the scary news. They made the difficult phone calls for appointments and results which they compassionately passed along to me. I didn’t have to stress when the phone rang because I knew one of them would take the sting out of any impending bad news. I had an angel at work who met me outside every day where I parked my car so she could carry my heavy book bag into school. I am right handed and it was my right side that was affected by the breast cancer.” Geri P.
“Send a card, email, text or call, add some humor if you can. Each week I received a card or two from friends, family, coworkers, etc. It made me feel connected.
The biggest challenge for me was getting things accomplished. I wanted to do everything myself but couldn’t. I hated to ask people for help, but if they sincerely offered, I accepted the help. So, offer to pick up small things at the grocery store, do light cleaning they may not be able to do. Visit and help out with a small task. Cook, dust, etc.
One very positive experience was with my caregiver. Although I am fiercely independent and was determined to stay at home after my double mastectomy, she knew better and told me I would stay with her and the family. She arranged a room for me (put her son on an air mattress in another room), rearranged furniture so I’d have a bed, a recliner… anything I needed in my own private world. I arrived from the hospital to flowers, cards, chocolate and my own private place to deal. They also allowed me to do whatever I could but were there if I needed help. Not everyone can do this but simple things mean a lot.
Another positive experience was a visit. A cousin called and asked if I was up for a visit several weeks after surgery. She assured me I didn’t need to do anything for her arrival from out of town. She arrived with an entire car load of goodies. The friends at home had arranged sunshine baskets to help me through recovery and chemo. Frozen meals, snacks, magazines, lotions, etc. Not only did she come to visit, bring me so many supplies and food I needed, but she said ‘What needs to get done?’ Again fiercely independent me said nothing; but she insisted and vacuumed and mopped the floors for me. A huge relief for me as it frustrated me I couldn’t do it.
Offer to drive to store or appointments: I couldn’t drive for a month or two due to complications. I had a friend who checked in with me frequently and asked when my next appointment was. She showed up every time, took me to my appointments and often times we would stop at a store and pick up some items I needed to buy. It was a chance to visit, get out of the house and get to a store occasionally.
Probably the most important way people can help is include the person going through cancer as you normally do. Don’t stop inviting them. I was always active and going places with friends and family. Multiple surgeries and chemo slowed me down a lot. But my friends and family kept me updated and invited me to events and kept me included. They all knew it was predicated by how I was feeling. I went to college graduations, county fairs, birthday parties, trips to the beach and numerous local events. Sure I had to take it slower than I liked, but I was there. My life didn’t stop just because of cancer.
Recognize wigs may be hot or uncomfortable: I went to a party. I couldn’t drink, had to go to bed early but I was there hanging with friends and forgetting about cancer for a while. It was a hot July weekend and I was sweating with my wig on, but I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. A friend said ‘Hey, if your wig is hot, we are all ok if you don’t want to wear it; we understand.’ Wow! I wore scarfs around close family and friends but not in groups. I slipped away, swapped the wig for a lightweight scarf and returned to the party. Someone hollered ‘Yay, now she is comfortable!’ We all laughed and carried on.” Thelma B.
“I think the best way a friend or family member can behave is to interact with me the same way as before my diagnosis. I always say to them if I need your help I will ask for it. I have always gone on with my daily activities. I live alone and most of my family is at a distance. I have to work so I have to put my best foot forward. Strength comes out of necessity. After my third rodeo with my disease, it is the only way I can survive.
The best compliment my family and friends give me is to remark that they see a determination in me to live a full and long life no matter how many times cancer comes a calling.” Kathleen V.
“Helpful things people can say: ‘I am here for you. You are not going to go through this alone. Whatever you decide to do, I will support you. This is your journey and I will be here for you.’ Also: ‘This is very hard to hear. I am not sure what to say. I love you.’” Natalie K.
“Getting a cancer diagnosis is certainly not easy. It is unexpected, scary and overwhelming. Having to make major decisions about your treatment plan, choosing doctors and surgeons that are on your insurance plan, what to do about work, caring for children, paying bills etc. is not easy. Having major surgery, getting chemotherapy and radiation treatments and losing your hair is life changing. Trying to pretend that you are fine in order to not frighten or burden your family and friends is difficult. Putting your wig and makeup on so you don’t scare your kids or their friends stinks.
The things that I really appreciated and that made a difference for me were the awesome friends that were there for me. Some of who surprised me with their kindness: The one who had had cancer and dropped a chemo goody bag off to me complete with a water bottle, sucking candies, hats, crossword puzzles, a diary, lotion, chap stick, pepto bismol, tums and constipation medicine. She held me by the hand every step of the way and told me what to expect. The one that took me to get my hair shaved off and introduced me to Support Connection, a support group for women diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancer. Talking about my disease and experiences and learning from the facilitators and other survivors was so very important. She was my angel and an integral part of my recovery.
Other friends helped too: Caring for my children when I was really sick, so I didn’t have to worry about them. Cooking my family a meal. Taking me to or from surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation or doctor appointments. Sending a cleaning service to clean my house. Understanding when I wasn’t up to talking or going out.” Patty W.