Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Do’s and Don’ts for Supporting Cancer Patients


Dear Readers,

It is a pleasure to introduce you to my guest columnist, Susan Rancourt.  (Full disclosure: Susan is my sister-in-law.)

I think you will agree that her list of “Do’s and Don’ts for Supporting Cancer Patients” is chock full of great advice. For example, instead of saying to a cancer patient, “What can I do to help?” one idea is to print out Susan’s list and ask the patient to check off a couple of items that would be most helpful.

susanrancourtSusan Rancourt recently retired from an adventurous career in Silicon Valley High Tech. She is a devoted life-long learner, an accomplished jazz vocalist, a committed practitioner of Bikram yoga and cardio kick-boxing, thinks kids are a hoot, and delights in the fact that 30 somethings want to hang out with her and her spouse. She refers to her New Jersey born, 100% Sicilian spouse as, “the nice one, the cute one, and the smart one.” In addition to many other travel wish-list destinations, Susan dreams of spending time with elephants in Thailand. Susan lives outside San Francisco with her spouse of 39 years, Annette Pittari, and their toy poodle, Kip.

Do’s and Don’ts for Supporting Cancer Patients

As I was reading [Dr. Gramma] Karen’s article, “Do’s and Don’ts for Supporting Widows and Widowers,” I was reminded of a similar list I started a few years ago when I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. I kept a list of things people had done for my spouse Annette Pittari and me so that we could thank them and acknowledge their specific acts of kindness.

My suggested do’s and don’ts reflect what worked and didn’t work for me, under my specific circumstances. I hope sharing them helps make communication and interactions easier and more comfortable between others facing a serious medical challenge, such as cancer, and those who want to Be There for a family member or friend.

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Don’ts: Things NOT to say to a cancer patient

1. Don’t tell them about your, “Uncle’s sister’s friend who had breast cancer.” Why? Because every cancer is different, every person is different, every medical team is different, and medical advances change over time. (Yes, we patients recognize that the person is trying to say something encouraging, but honestly, particular stories like these are not helpful.)

2. Don’t ever compare medical treatment experiences. My favorite example: “I had really mild chemo and was playing golf the next day. Nothing to it!” (I don’t have to belabor how insensitive this type of sharing is.)

3. Don’t recommend alternative treatments, websites, books, or articles. Throwing out unsolicited suggestions calls into question the competence of the patient’s medical team. This is scary and overwhelming. (For example, someone suggesting I try a “new” treatment in Mexico is bad enough, but most horrifying for me was when someone told me to examine my behavior because, “clearly, I brought this on myself.”)

Now for some practical suggestions of what people can do to help.

Do’s: These are in no particular order

1. Give a small token of support and encouragement with a stone heart, unscented candle, necklace, or bracelet.

2. Drop off a cookbook and say, “Pick one dish a week and I’ll make it for you.”

3. Text your friend whenever you’re going food shopping or running errands and make yourself available.

4. Walk their dog regularly or care for any other pets they may have.

5. Pick up pet food and/or take the dog to the groomer.

6. Drop off flowers – nothing fancy necessary.

7. Check in regularly unless asked to taper off. Just a quick connection means a lot.

8. Drop by with a picnic lunch and sit outside to enjoy it.

9. Drop off favorite foods and/or treats, e.g., frozen yogurt.

10. Take care of post office duties and/or returns.

11. Take over watering indoor/outdoor plants, fertilizing, maybe do a bit of weeding.

12. Offer to accompany your friend to any outing they may have planned, in case they need to go home early.

13. Send funny videos … silly, but they always made me smile.

14. Send a card in the mail – I was surprised at how much I appreciated those.

15. I started a special iPhoto slideshow of inspirational, nature, and animal photographs and asked friends to send me pictures to add.

16. Give coloring books for adults. This was a good pastime during chemo.

17. Send care packages in the mail with a selection of favorite things.

18. Arrange for housecleaning!

19. Drop off special drinks: teas, coffees, smoothies, etc.

20. Get pals together for lunch or a visit on a day when you know your friend is feeling pretty good. Arrange the day, do all of the communication, and bring the food and beverages.

21. If you’re from out of town visit if you can.

22. Give a magazine subscription.

23. If you know of a special interest your friend has, supply materials, tools, and related magazines, books, videos. Example: knitting.

24. Send a thumb drive of music you’re enjoying.

25. Take their car in for an oil change or tune up or to the car wash.

26. If you’re cooking a batch of something for your family make extra and drop it off.

27. Offer to do laundry or drop it off to be done then pick it up and bring it back.

28. Remember their birthdays or other special occasions.

29. Ask your kids to send a card or note.

30. Just sit and watch a movie with your friend.

31. Order inexpensive bracelets for your friends to wear in support. Mine was, “fight like a girl,” and even Chuck, our fire captain pal, wore it everyday.

32. Humor is essential! Help your friend keep a list of favorite quotes.

33. Take them for a drive on a good day when their energy is best.

34. Offer to go to the library for them.

35. Take their spouse/partner/ primary caretaker out for coffee, lunch or dinner.

36. If it’s around the holidays, help them shop online.

37. Fix something around the house or arrange for a repair person to come.

38. Offer to drive them to appointments.

39. Be in charge of setting up Meal Train, or similar tool, so that friends can participate in scheduling dinner drop-offs.

40. Remember that life goes on. Use your judgment, of course, but assuming it’s a ‘good day’ your friend is likely to appreciate an update about your life, especially if it’s a funny story.

My spouse and I were on the receiving end of every single one of these! We will be forever grateful to our family and friends for their loving and welcome help and support. We hope these suggested do’s and don’ts are widely shared and prove useful to others.

E-mail queries to [email protected]

to learn about Dr. Gramma Karen and her books; her most recent is
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

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