Written by Magda Cychowski
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Micheal Guerrera
When a loved one develops cancer, feelings of sadness, helplessness, and worry are totally natural—particularly if you live far away. But even if miles separate you, you can still provide some of the most essential balms: communication and support.
The most important thing in this situation is to stay in touch. Your attention and concern can bring comfort and boost your loved one's spirits, while frequent chats will keep you feeling involved and informed.
Asking for help when undergoing treatment can feel arduous; remind your loved one that they are not a burden by stepping in and anticipating what they might need (while making sure to respect their autonomy). As an added bonus, your actions will also take the load off daily caregivers who may feel overwhelmed during this time.
No act of kindness is too small to make an impact. Consider these seven suggestions for long-distance caregiving.
Set up a weekly grocery delivery, laundry pickup, or cleaning service
As cancer patients struggle with the side effects of treatment, keeping up with cooking and maintaining a comfortable living space can be difficult. It’s more important than ever to make sure living spaces are actually liveable. Consider scheduling a grocery delivery, care packages, laundry pickup, or cleaning service to ensure that chores are taken care of.
COVID-19 makes it difficult to prepare food and safely bring it over, but meal delivery services specifically designed for cancer patients (meaning minimal prep and cook time) are also a great option. You may also be able to order meals for cancer patientsonline or over the telephone from a local supermarket that offers deliveries.
Offer to do research
Cancer is overwhelming, to say the least. Some individuals may not have the energy, desire, or skills to gather the information necessary to understand the disease and make informed decisions. Volunteer to do the necessary research regarding oncologists, facilities, treatments, delivery for meals for cancer patients, clinical trials, and available support services. Make sure to use only trustworthy resources such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.
Send gifts that pass the time
Books, magazines, and music can be helpful distractions during lengthy chemotherapy, MRI or radiation sessions. Sending handwritten notes or loving messages conveying kind thoughts can also be uplifting to people going through treatment. Care packages and get well soon gifts are a great way to give your loved one something to look forward to each month (and they don’t have to cost a fortune!).
Connect in ways that don’t relate to illness or treatment
Most cancer patients don't want to talk about cancer all the time. Find ways to remind your friend about life outside cancer. If you like the same TV show, set up a time to web chat or video chat and watch the show together. Consider a subscription service like Book of the Month as a way to create your own makeshift book club and stay connected in ways outside of your loved one’s diagnosis.
Get your loved one’s legal and financial affairs in order
Although end-of-life planning might be difficult to broach in conversation, they’re often low on the priority list of cancer patients and their caregivers as the more pertinent parts of treatment take precedence.
If you have this kind of a relationship with your loved one, and if they would welcome it, consider taking the lead on drafting estate plans (there are many free and easy alternatives online), or getting in touch with a legal advisor to ensure that your loved one’s wishes are honored and respected.
Don't underestimate the emotional support that comes from regular phone calls or emails
While this may seem like the easiest option, it may be one of the most impactful. Patients’ days are typically inundated with treatments, medications, and mundanity. Planning a regular phone call or video chat can give them something to look forward to. You can even arrange to make these calls “cancer-free” and make talking about cancer off limits (unless the patient needs a vent session!). This can provide them with a momentary reprieve and help give their daily routine a sense of normalcy again.
Cancer often puts a strain on family finances, especially if the ill person must take time off work. Many people are too proud or embarrassed to ask for financial help, but if you suspect it's needed and feel comfortable offering, broach the subject politely. For example, since you live too far to drive your loved one to medical visits or babysit their children, suggest paying for transportation or child care costs.
You can also raise funds online through peer-to-peer fundraising (like GoFundMe or Facebook Donations).
Ultimately, the patient is in charge of their illness, but you can offer hope and optimism in your approach to a painstaking disease. Providing a listening ear and empathy without minimizing their experience can be incredibly validating. It’s OK to not have all the answers—giving space for your loved one to grieve and express their full range of emotions can be healing for both of you.
Whatever support you give, take cues and don’t be afraid to ask your loved one what they truly need. Even if the answer is “nothing,” taking tangible action can show your loved one you’re there for them, even from afar.