Written by Meghan Konkol
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Jake Prigoff
“Let me know how I can help!”
When I was in cancer treatment, I found myself on the receiving end of this well-meaning—but ultimately unhelpful—offer more than a few times.
It’s a common enough phrase, and many people genuinely intend it as an offer to help. But when you say it to a loved one going through cancer, you unknowingly put a significant burden back on them. Let’s take a look at why it’s so difficult to hear these words, and how you can reframe your offer into something infinitely more helpful.
How cancer treatment can feel like a full-time job
Cancer treatment often involves a lot of moving parts, from chemotherapy to surgery to radiation. Sometimes, multiple doctors, hospitals, and treatment centers are involved, and appointments may need to be scheduled with surgeons, social workers, nurse navigators, physical therapists, genetic counselors, and fertility specialists. All this can add up to an overwhelming and seemingly never-ending task list and calendar--even for people who consider themselves hyper-organized.
Staying on track through cancer treatment can feel like a full-time job. Returning home from a day at the hospital, I felt like I barely had the capacity to do much more than follow my oncologist’s orders to drink liquids and take my meds. As much as I would have loved to have a lively home and social life outside of treatment, the truth is that I just didn’t have the physical or mental energy to keep up. Unfortunately, I had to press pause on a lot of activities and responsibilities that were a regular part of my pre-cancer life.
I am so thankful for the many friends, family members, and even strangers who reached out to offer their support as I went through cancer treatment. But every so often, when I heard “Let me know how I can help!”, I would feel a pang of anxiety as it added yet another daunting set of tasks to my to-do list. I now felt responsible for determining what needed to be done, what I could reasonably expect of each person, and when they would do it. Coordinating these types of details may not have been a big deal in the past, but with my dwindling energy levels during cancer treatment, it felt like an insurmountable challenge.
Plus, asking for help is hard. As wonderful as it is to have loved ones in our corner, many people going through cancer treatment feel embarrassed or uncomfortable asking for favors. Some may find it difficult to express that they’re having a hard time keeping up with the things they used to do before they were in treatment. Or they might feel guilty, fearing that they’re imposing on people who have their own families and responsibilities to take care of. On top of all that, they might not know which task each person is most willing and able to do.
How to actually show up for your loved one with cancer
When you say “Let me know how I can help,” the recipient most likely knows that you mean well and truly do want to support them through a difficult time--but by now, it’s clear why this offer isn’t quite as helpful as you intended. So how can you show up in a meaningful way to help a loved one with cancer?
It comes down to being proactive and taking specific actions to make your loved one feel seen, supported, and a little less alone as they navigate through the scary and overwhelming territory of cancer treatment. You want to make their life even a tiny bit easier. And you can!
There’s a lot of help that your loved one with cancer could potentially need, and with a little extra initiative, you can take a significant mental and emotional load off their plate. If you’re able to eliminate unnecessary decision-making and coordination tasks, the recipient can simply enjoy your contribution and not worry about asking for and organizing it.
The key here is to choose something you actually want to do, offer a specific time and place if applicable, and show up. Make the process as easy as possible for your loved one with cancer! Here are a couple of examples:
“I’m going grocery shopping this afternoon. What are you out of? I’ll drop it off later."
“I’ll be in your neighborhood tomorrow morning. Maybe you’d be up for a visit or walk?”
These offers were helpful to me because they didn’t require any worrying or organization on my part. My friends also made me feel like these offers weren’t an extra burden on them, because they were simply fitting them into their existing schedules. No big deal! And if I wasn’t up for socializing, they would leave groceries or care packages at the door and let me rest. Some had an extra key to my place and could even let themselves in to put groceries in the fridge or take out the dog on their own.
I can’t overemphasize how helpful it was to have caregivers who would show up and do errands and household chores without waiting to be asked or given specific instructions. I know to them it may not have seemed like a big deal, but to me it meant so much. Having one less task to worry about—and a friend who showed up and did it, no questions asked—meant that I could focus on recuperating from yet another grueling chemo session. And there was absolutely no guilt if I didn’t have the energy to get up and play host to someone who was stopping by to help me.
Another option, if you’re comfortable with it, is to get directly involved in their treatment-related tasks. There’s a good chance your loved one would benefit from help organizing their transportation needs, managing their appointment calendar, or sorting through bills. I even had a friend who researched various providers for me when I felt overwhelmed with surgery decisions and didn’t know how to find the right medical professional for my needs. Another one gave me the nudge I needed to find a different physical therapist when I wasn’t 100% happy with the post-op treatment I received at the hospital.
Lastly, let’s not forget food! It might seem tricky to work around various restrictions and side effects your loved one is experiencing, but a little effort on your part can go a long way. As long as you ask a few questions about what they can and like to eat, you should be just fine. We all have to eat, after all and meals for cancer patients are a vital service!
Several of my friends got into the habit of making extra portions of their family meals, and would stop by to drop some off in freezer-friendly containers. If I wasn’t feeling great or was gone for an appointment at the hospital, they would leave the meals in a cooler I had by the back door. Again, this gesture meant so much because I was able to enjoy a wonderful home-cooked meal without feeling like I was putting an extra burden on anyone.
I also received a meal kit subscription from a family member. This is a fantastic way you can support someone who lives far away—or maybe you want to help out with meals but don’t enjoy cooking. These meal kits were always a fun surprise for me to receive, and they eliminated a lot of extra time and decision-making for grocery shopping and meal planning.
On top of myriad physical side effects, cancer can feel truly lonely and isolating. When someone is going through cancer, they may find it difficult to ask for help or even explain what help they need. At the end of the day, with a little planning and initiative, you can have a huge impact on making your loved one’s cancer experience less difficult. With an active support system in place, they can focus their energy on getting through treatment and taking good care of themselves. By showing up and taking something off of their plate, you’ll make a world of difference, and they’re sure to appreciate it. Even the smallest gestures can remind them that you love them and they’re not alone.