Communicating Help & Support

Too often people diagnosed with cancer find it hard to ask for help or even just talk about their disease. For family members and caregivers, this can be very frustrating as well. How can you help someone when you don’t know if they are having trouble? Maybe they are not expressing themselves verbally and certainly not asking for help overtly?

Consider these tips.  You may be able to better to communicate with your loved one, friend or even someone you are a professional caregiver for.  By communicating you can express your real concern and care, and help someone in their most vulnerable times.
  • Be a good listener. Sometimes, all someone needs is for someone to simply listen to them.
  • Be comfortable with the patient’s silence. Silence allows individuals to think deeply without interruption, which may help them to express their thoughts and feelings more easily.
  • Never underestimate the power of a warm and loving touch. A gentle touch often communicates more than words can convey.
  • Talk to the patient about topics other than cancer. This can help someone feel more like a normal person and take their mind to happier engaging places.
  • Be specific about the help you can offer. Instead of saying, “Let me know if you need help,” be specific about the kind of assistance you can give them. Patients with cancer may not know how to ask for help or know what help is available for them.  Some samples of specific suggestions? Offering to prepare a meal, give a ride to and from appointments, lending a hand with child care…
  • Continue to visit and stay in touch. People with cancer can feel very lonely and isolated. Your presence can be comforting and reassuring and help ease their fears and loneliness.


Getting help from family or friends can ease the stress and burdens involved in being a caregiver.  But even if they’re willing to lend help, they may not know how to ask if you need it or what you need.  Here are some ways to ask for help.

  • Ask family and friends when they might be available, and explore what tasks they feel most comfortable doing.
  • Give suggestions or directions about specific tasks they can help with or ask them if they have suggestions.
  • Be clear with your expectations so no one is diappointed and not on the same page.
  • Plan ahead and record on a calendar who can help and when with caregiving duties.


It can be daunting to talk with children about cancer when it’s struck one of their loved ones like a sister, mom or grandma or even friends. But it’s important to keep them aware of what’s going on, and informed about what’s involved during the three stages of cancer treatment: diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment.  Helping them understand what’s happening is always preferable to keeping them in the dark.
Here are some proven strategies and tips in talking with children about cancer.
  • Prepare and rehearse the message you want to give the child. You don’t want to say to yourself, “I could have said it differently” as soon as it comes out of your mouth.
  • Use language appropriate for the age of the child and the relationship with the patient.
  • Let children know of any changes in their schedule or in your schedule.
  • Don’t be afraid to say the word “cancer” as well as the specific type of cancer the patient has.
  • Ask children if they have any questions, and be honest with your answers. If you are uncertain, let children know that you will give them an answer when you find it out.


As a caregiver, being there as another set of eyes and ears can be the most important part of being helpful.  That way, you know what is going on as well. Helping prepare for each visit helps you and the patient get the most out of information discussed during an appointment.  It improves the chances that you and the patient will leave the appointment with all important questions answered.  This goes a long way towards easing stress. Here are some tips to make the most of your visit:

  • Bring a list of concerns and questions. Start with what is most important to you and the patient. Doctors have a limited amount of time to spend with patients and they may not have the time to answer all your questions. Prioritize them and find out who can address them if you don’t get to all of the questions.  For example, often there are physician’s assistants, physicians-in-training like residents or fellows, nurse navigators, nurses, nutritionists etc who can also answer you questions.
  • Bring paper and pen to take notes. It is easy to forget things when time is limited.  With mutual consent you may ask to record the session or parts of it.
  • Note details that the doctor emphasizes about the condition or treatment plan.
  • Ask the doctor to explain or repeat anything that may be confusing. It is crucial that you and the patient understand the treatment plan, options and why one or another may be recommended over another.
  • Bring a calendar or datebook for scheduling future visits.
  • Bring a list of all medications and supplements, both prescription and over-the-counter.  Don’t forget ANYTHING (e.g. herbal teas, herbs)
  • Ask about any side effects that might occur as a result of treatments or medications.  The risk of side effects and complications must be balanced by the benefits of the treatment and fit with expectations.
  • Remember to speak up and ask questions. If you don’t ask, your doctor will assume that you understand everything that was said.


Patients often experience a number of physical changes due to the side effects of cancer treatment (e.g. hair loss), and those changes can impact a patient’s self-image and quality of life.
When people feel good about the way they look to the world, they typically feel better on the inside. It’s no different for cancer patients.  Many studies have shown that patients who feel positive about the way they look experience a faster recovery than those who do not.
Some of the potential image changes to consider planning for:
  • Optimal use of cosmetic and skin-care
  • Alternatives for complete and partial hair loss, including fitting and styling for wigs as well as decorative bandannas
  • Clothes that are comfortable, especially after surgery


*Adapted from the American Cancer Society, Cancer Care and City of Hope