Unfortunately, we all know someone going through cancer or other debilitating illness. And sometimes, we don’t know how to help. Chances are you’ve read an article similar to this one. But, it’s always good to have a reminder on what to do and not to do when someone has cancer.

Devastating news

“You have cancer.” When it happens to you, you just put your head down and get through it as best you can. What else can you do?

But, when it happens to a loved one, a friend, colleague, neighbour, or even a casual acquaintance, we feel badly. We’re shocked, concerned, even scared. We want to help, but we’re unsure of what to do. We’re at a loss for words because we don’t want to say the wrong thing. So, sometimes we say or do nothing. We may even avoid them.

No words are needed

My first thought is to just be there. You don’t have to say a thing. Sit with them. Lend them a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to vent in, a tissue to wipe their tears. Allow them the dignity of their own pain. You can’t fix it for them as much as you’d like to.

What to do and not to do when someone has cancer, Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Sitting in silence is a hard thing to do. We always feel the need to fill the void. But, sitting next to someone in their pain is comforting for them, not for you. Keep that in mind.

Don’t offer advice. Don’t relay your own cancer stories. Everyone’s experience is different. The only exception is if they ask. Let them take the lead.

Things you can do

If you’re a person of action, then run errands, cook a meal, do a load of wash, drive them to an appointment, or take the kids for an afternoon. All are welcome, kind, and helpful gestures.

Just don’t ask THEM for suggestions on how YOU can help. That’s another burden on their already over-taxed emotional state. Let’s be honest. If you say, “Let me know how I can help?”, that’s never going to happen. Unless, of course, you’re super close to them, and then you’ll already know the answer.

Thoughtful gifts

Send them a cancer care package if they’re going through chemo or radiation. Joyful Packages has a selection of thoughtfully curated cancer care items for men, women, children, and caregivers. Joy Rodgers, the founder of Joyful Packages, is a breast cancer survivor.

What to do and not to do when someone has cancer by Colleen Kanna, Photo of Joy Rodgers of Joyful Packages

Joy Rodgers created Joyful Packages to give back to the community.

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A soft and breathable bamboo head covering is a thoughtful gift that will be greatly appreciated. Even during warmer months, your head gets cold without any hair. I currently have a few fuchsia and teal headscarves available.

What to do and not to do when someone has cancer, Photo of Fuchsia and Teal Bamboo Headscarves

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Coming soon, I’ll have headscarves in a new light and dark grey micro stripe bamboo. Plus, a new style of beanie.

New Bamboo Micro stripe Headscarf and Beanie

You can layer up the new beanie and headscarf or wear each on their own.

These will be available in April and I’m going to have a Giveaway so keep an eye out. The best way to stay in the know is to subscribe to my Keeping Abreast mailing list.

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PICC line covers are also a practical and caring gift. It shows you’ve done some research. You don’t know you need one, until you’re into chemotherapy and you have a PICC line.

What to do and not to do when someone has cancer, Photo of PICC line covers

PICC Sleeves come in black, charcoal, plum and teal.

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A card in the mail is a good way to let people know you’re thinking of them. Particularly during these Covid times, when close contact may not be a good idea with their compromised immune system.


Having said that though, an in-person visit may be just what they need for their emotional well-being. Often we think we shouldn’t be bothering someone going through treatment. We picture them resting in bed all day. However, that’s typically not the case, at least not all the time. Maybe they’re feeling isolated and would like some company. Maybe they’d love to get out of the house and go for a walk or a coffee or tea. Doing something “normal” may be just the thing to lift their spirits. You can always ask, letting them know it’s ok if they say no. And, remember to keep your visit/outing on the shorter side.

Be mindful

Finally, don’t tell them how ‘good’ they look especially if they’ve lost their hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Don’t say anything that doesn’t ring true. They’ve looked in the mirror. They may have gained or lost weight. Their skin may be pale and grey looking, or puffy, or burnt. Their nails may be dark. They may be having hot flashes, or nausea. The drugs are powerful and the side effects many, and everyone is affected differently.

The last thing they want is your pity though. Ask how they’re doing? How are their treatments going? Is there anything that helps with the side effects that you could pick up for them?

There are so many ways we can let people know we care. I’m sure you have your own experiences, ideas, and suggestions. Please drop them in the comments so we can share. The more ideas we have, the better prepared we’ll be to help someone going through a challenging time in a meaningful and thoughtful way.

Until next time,

~ Colleen

Colleen Kanna, Photo by Anna Epp Photography

I’m a recovering Chartered Accountant and Breast Cancer Champion turned Fashion Designer. My COKANNA Canadian-made bamboo clothing is all about comfort and style. Giving back to the community is important to me so I support Rethink Breast Cancer‘s metastatic breast cancer education, support, and advocacy work.