The “C-Word.” It’s so intimidating, we even avoid saying it: Cancer. It can be scary to receive the diagnosis — for the patient, of course, but it can also bring on a host of confusing emotions for the family and friends of someone who has cancer. What do you say (or not say)? What should you bring (or not bring)? How can you be most helpful and supportive to the patient, their family and the main caregiver during this time?

To find out these answers, we went directly to the source and asked cancer survivors, survivors’ family members and medical professionals what they recommend. Don’t be so bewildered to say the wrong thing that you fade out of the picture. If we learned anything through their responses, it’s that the cancer patient values your continued presence and positivity in their life, and there are countless ways to help them and their caregiver/family. So, keep calm and read on! There is definitely something you can do to show your love and support.

What should you say (or not say)?

I think people are sometimes nervous that they will say the wrong thing, so they don’t say anything. That is the worst thing you can do for someone fighting cancer because it is powerful to know that you have a whole army behind you.

— Kirstin Hoff, cancer survivor, Founder and Artist of Chick4aCause

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Kirstin Hoff, #FindingJoyEveryday, as she undergoes cancer treatment

I have found that it is almost never helpful to say (or hear) “everything happens for a reason.” While there may be some truth to it, it led me to think my life or my behavior or something about me caused the breast cancer.

— Suzie Cooper, cancer survivor, 1st Vice President of UAB Volunteer Services Angel Squad

Just being with someone without saying a word can be the reassurance they need. Let the person guide you as to how much they want to discuss details of their diagnosis.

— Emily Thomas, Founder and Executive Director, The Cancer Card Xchange

As a rule, practice empathy rather than sympathy. Try to put yourself in their shoes and recognize the emotions they might be feeling rather than feeling sorry for them and trying to find the silver lining. Note the difference between: “Gosh, you are probably feeling so overwhelmed right now — would it be helpful if I brought dinner over for you and your family tomorrow night?” and “Oh, you poor thing. Just remember you are only ever given as much as you can handle.” The first response validates how the family is feeling and offers specific support while the second may make them feel small and inadequate, if they indeed feel they can’t handle something in that moment.

— Avi Madan-Swain, Ph.D.; Caroline Davis, MS; and Christina D’Angelo, MA, Children’s of Alabama

You can say, “We are praying and thinking about your family during this time.” Do not say, “You know there is treatment they can do with ‘natural medicine.’”

— Jenny Landstreet, parent of cancer survivor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

It is important for friends and family to know that every cancer is different. Every treatment is different. It usually isn’t helpful to share too much about your own personal experience with chemotherapy or radiation. Your experience may not be relevant to your friend’s experience at all. Even worse is offering insight found on the internet. The best thing the family can do is to rely on us to give them clinical advice.

— Arash Rezazadeh, M.D., medical oncologist, Norton Cancer Institute

Keep things positive and encouraging — it is not the time to focus on anything negative. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words to say, but we can always listen and show kindness. I think those are the very two things that helped me the most.

— Allison Norris, cancer survivor and former patient at UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center

“Please let me know if there is anything I can do” is a phrase I have heard more times than I can count. A better idea is this: “I have lasagna for four in my freezer with your name on it. Let me know when you hit a dinner-less evening, and tell me a time. I will leave it on your doorstep — no need to dress or let me in.”

— Suzie Cooper, cancer survivor and 1st Vice President of UAB Volunteer Services Angel Squad

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“This image is of just a few days after my complete mastectomy, up, dressed (drains in place and all!) and dining out for a friend’s birthday,” says Suzie. “Cancer surgery was SO less traumatic than I ever, ever imagined! The doctors were amazing, the nurses caring and compassionate, the stay very brief, and the pain minimal.”

Everyone is different, but I know, personally, I don’t like the “war metaphor” so often ascribed to cancer. I didn’t feel like a fighter and didn’t have a clue how to “beat cancer.” I was doing my best to hold it together for my family and keep everything as normal as possible. I didn’t want the pressure of “battling cancer.” And when I think of my many friends who have died with cancer — cancer didn’t “win.” Their lives were more than cancer.

— Emily Thomas, cancer survivor, Founder and Executive Director of The Cancer Card Xchange

RELATED: Coping With Cancer: Hope’s Story

Don’t tell the patient why you think that they have cancer. Also, please don’t tell the patient and caretaker that there has to be a cure, and all of these drug manufacturers are just making money off chemo drugs and cancer treatments. Treatment is a personal choice for everyone.

— Heidi Fuller, cancer survivor and owner of Awakenings Boutique

What should you bring or send?

Children and adolescents love to receive blankets, fun pillowcases, arts and crafts activities, card games and board games to keep them busy and distracted while receiving their cancer treatment. Even more importantly, though, bring yourself, and offer to play with them or do a craft together. Often your time and positive energy are a welcome break from the monotony of the hospital. Also, don’t forget the siblings! Often siblings of children with cancer spend many days and nights in the hospital room with their family — bring a special gift to let them know you are thinking of them too.

— Avi Madan-Swain, PhD., Caroline Davis, MS, and Christina D’Angelo, MA; Children’s of Alabama

Cancer planners are a thoughtful gift that will be used. There are many planners that are great for keeping detailed information such as details about surgeries, medications, chemo drugs, doctor visits and other notes. Also, care packages that are filled with inspirational items and products that will help them feel comfortable like blankets, pillows, recovery and healing items.

— Heidi Fuller, cancer survivor and owner of Awakenings Boutique

Heidi Fuller, cancer survivor and owner of Awakenings Boutique

Heidi Fuller, cancer survivor and owner of Awakenings Boutique

Don’t bring fresh-cut flowers. That is the natural go-to, but they can be dangerous to someone going through chemo treatment. The thing that helped me the most was when friends called while they were at the grocery store to ask if we needed anything. Sometimes that quick drop-off of a gallon of milk was worth a million.

— Kirstin Hoff, cancer survivor, Founder and Artist of Chick4aCause

Products for dry mouth, journals, comfy socks and magazines are nice. I received an unbelievable number of cards. Some people sent at least one per week for months. They certainly brightened my day!

— Paula Miller, breast cancer survivor and former patient at Norton Cancer Institute

Check with the family before bringing food — sometimes hospitalized children cannot eat for a variety of reasons, so bringing their favorite meal can quickly become a source of disappointment or frustration. When in doubt, bring a cheerful attitude, a helping hand and a new game or two to distract the family and brighten their day!

— Avi Madan-Swain, PhD., Caroline Davis, MS, and Christina D’Angelo, MA; Children’s of Alabama

RELATED: Meet Amputee, Breast Cancer Survivor & Author Donna Hopkins: FACES of the South

Stay away if you could be sick. Send them a card.

— Jenny Landstreet, parent of cancer survivor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

I really appreciated my friends keeping in touch with me through phone calls, video calls, text messages and emails. I also really liked when they visited me in the hospital! It made me happy when people tried to bring “a bit of home” to me in the hospital. I liked when they would bring pictures of family, friends and pets or special blankets from home and also when they’d bring traditions — like Elf on the Shelf — right to my hospital room!

— Cancer survivor and former patient at Children’s of Alabama

Besides food and gifts, what can you do to be supportive?

Fatigue is a significant aspect to any cancer treatment. Ways to relieve pressure vary per patient. However, many times, it is the everyday duties that become difficult to complete whether due to fatigue or not enough time to complete such duties secondary to doctors’ appointments, physical therapy, cancer rehabilitation appointments, etc. Therefore, ways to relieve pressure from the patient and caregiver include cutting grass, grocery shopping, house cleaning and assistance with the upkeep of home and family duties, such as taking kids to school and extracurricular activities.

— Gina Morrison, RN, BSN, OCN, Oncology Patient Navigator – Survivorship, Norton Cancer Institute

My church group, not asking but doing by taking over three meals per day; After surgery, a friend came to wash my hair; and my sister sitting with me during chemo, taking the time (away from her four kids and husband) to listen.

— Heidi Fuller, cancer survivor and owner of Awakenings Boutique

Heidi Fuller of Awakenings Boutique poses with two friends who model her wigs.

Heidi Fuller of Awakenings Boutique poses with two friends who model her wigs.

Text or email often with a note at the beginning that says “Please don’t answer – I was just thinking about you and wanted you to know it.”

— Suzie Cooper, cancer survivor and 1st Vice President of UAB Volunteer Services Angel Squad

Help manage the patient’s phone texts.

— Paula Miller, breast cancer survivor and former patient at Norton Cancer Institute

I liked when my school invited me to participate in activities like pep rallies if I was feeling up for it! It is hard to miss out on so much school, so anything they did to include me from home was great!

— Cancer survivor and former patient at Children’s of Alabama

Time is the most valuable gift you can give someone. And keep things as normal as possible. I didn’t like being fussed over — regular, everyday activities can become very important.

— Allison Norris, cancer survivor and former patient at UAB

Find the person who is closest to the person with cancer. It might be a parent, a best friend or a coworker. Go through them so that you fill a definite need. Dropping off practical items like laundry supplies, paper goods or snacks on a doorstep would be a great idea.

— Emily Thomas, Founder and Executive Director, The Cancer Card Xchange

It helped so much when people would come to walk our dog.

— Kirstin Hoff, cancer survivor, Founder and Artist of Chick4aCause

One of the most helpful things friends and family can do is to help report changes in symptoms or behavior to the care team. Some patients unnecessarily try to “tough out” side effects of treatment. Caregivers or family may notice differences that the patients themselves do not. They should let us know so that we can help smooth out the course and offer supportive care. Family can also help encourage patients to report negative side effects to the care team so that we can help.

— Arash Rezazadeh, M.D., Medical Oncologist, Norton Cancer Institute

What can folks do for the main caretaker/family (often the person closest to the patient, which makes it also very hard on them emotionally, physically and psychologically)?

You can offer many of the same services that you may offer to the patient in order to help the caretaker during this time as it will relieve their stress and let them focus on the patient. You can also offer a listening ear, friendship, gift certificates for special services like a massage or special event to attend – one of the most helpful ideas is to offer to spend time with and take care of the patient so the caretaker can have time to themselves to care for their own needs – again, like respite and self-care.

— Marsha Newton, Patient Navigator at Princeton Baptist Medical Center’s Cancer Center

Check in with the caretaker. Text and call. Do not be absent in their lives. Be a “sounding board” for their feelings and thoughts. Let them know that their feelings and thoughts are safe with you.

— Heidi Fuller, cancer survivor and owner of Awakenings Boutique

Recognize all the stress and emotion the caretaker and family is also going through. Send them a card just as often.

— Kirstin Hoff, cancer survivor, Founder and Artist of Chick4aCause

Simply give them a call and let them know you are thinking of them. Ask them how they are doing. Keep this up after the initial wave of post-diagnosis support fades. Often the support immediately after a child’s diagnosis is high and then wanes as time goes on. Continue to check in with the family throughout their (sometimes long) cancer journey to let them know you are there for them.

— Avi Madan-Swain, PhD., Caroline Davis, MS, and Christina D’Angelo, MA; Children’s of Alabama

Apps & other digital platforms to support patients and their families:

“Cancer not only affects our physical bodies, but it also affects our minds. With that said, it is important to take care of our mental health as well,” says Gina Morrison, RN, BSN, OCN of the Norton Cancer Institute. Apps to help support the mind and body for both patients and families include:

Now, bookmark this article and share it with your circle of friends who are looking for creative and effective ways to support your friends with cancer. And, when in doubt, simply exude love and enact specific helpful actions!

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