Practical Guide to Supporting a Loved One


My friend calls it Love Food, the meals we’ve made and delivered to her and her family every day since her diagnosis in November last year. More than the food, she says that every ice cream box and covered plate brings with it love, support for her and her loved ones, a glimpse of the outside world in which life continues and a reminder that so many people are holding her in their thoughts.

We use Take Them a Meal, and with one close friend of the family acting as meal coordinator to get it set up, we quickly had a list of friends, colleagues, book club members, neighbours and other concerned people. Some sign up to cook every second week, some only do so when their personal schedules allow, but everybody does it because they want to, because it helps us feel as if we’re doing something.

Often it is hard for a newly-diagnosed person to ask for help, or even to think practically about the ways in which she’ll need assistance. To offer to help any way you can is generous, but less likely to be accepted, often for fear of putting you out. Instead think about what is practical and do-able for you, and make specific suggestions:

  • Could I drive you to appointments/ blood tests/ radiation sessions? I’m free on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
  • Our kids go to the same school; would it be helpful if I started lifting yours?
  • I’m online all the time; could I maintain a mailing list of your friends and family to report on how you’re doing? Could I research anything specific for you – diets, treatments, support programmes, exercise regimes? Shall I buy and send a gift voucher on your behalf for a family member’s birthday coming up soon?
  • I’m a doctor/medical practitioner or just a good listener; would you like me to accompany you to appointments to make note of what is said so we can go through the information slowly afterwards?
  • I walk most afternoons; could I take you and/or your dogs out to stretch the legs?
  • I don’t have children or dependents, would you like me to come and sleep on your couch the night after chemo/surgery in case you need anything?
  • Could I take responsibility for keeping all your medical records, invoices etc well filed? Leave them all in a basket at the front door and I’ll collect them periodically and make copies etc. I’m good with paperwork.
  • We’re going to the beach; shall we take your kids? (Substitute library/swimming pool/park/ice cream parlour.)
  • I work nights, call me anytime if you need to chat or vent, or just cry. I never go to sleep before 3 am.

When a friend or loved one is diagnosed all we want in the world is to make them better, and the knowledge that we can’t do so is so disheartening. But there is lots we can do for people undergoing treatment for cancer, most importantly to make it as easy as possible for them to accept our help. Be practical and clear in your offers of assistance. Be pleased when you can help, and not offended when you can’t. Be there, but respect the patient’s space. Be mindful, be supportive.

Here’s some recommended reading

What do you do to help? What help would you like to get? Please share your views in the comments below.


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