[CANCER] How to Help: A practical guide to supporting people undergoing chemotherapy.

[CANCER] How to Help: A practical guide to supporting people undergoing chemotherapy.

A friend of mine is putting together content to be given to friends and family who may be seeking to help out people, like me, who live on their own or are e.g. single parents, but also those seeking to help more widely. She wants to keep the content simple, but would appreciate some feedback on how helpful this seems, especially from those undergoing chemotherapy (what do you want/not want), and as a friend/family what more would you want to know?

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There are lots of different types of chemotherapy, used to treat different types of cancer. Even cancers occurring at the same site, such as the breast, can vary significantly and will require different chemotherapy drugs to treat them. Therefore, even if you know more than one person who has had chemotherapy, there is a good chance that their experiences will be different.

Chemotherapy doesn’t just affect the cancer, it affects every cell in the body. This can lead to a host of unpleasant side effects- some that can be seen, but many are unseen. Unless you have ever had chemotherapy yourself, it is almost impossible to imagine how someone undergoing chemotherapy treatment will be feeling. On some days, even though they may look OK, the side effects could render them unable to do anything. Things that we take for granted, such as thinking, holding a conversation, sitting up for any length of time, making decisions, even being able to taste food, can all be massively affected by chemotherapy, and the patient may not be able to do any of these on their “poorly days.”

As a friend or relative, the best thing you can do is offer specific, unassuming practical support during these times.


  • Get in touch ahead of the poorly days (the day of chemotherapy is usually quite a good day) and agree when you will visit, because they may not appreciate random drop-ins.
  • Make arrangements about how you will get into the property without them having to get up and let you in.
  • Offer to bring meals on those days, or make something with what they already have. The patient will probably not be able to think about what they want, so do the thinking for them. It is a good idea to go for plain foods and avoid anything spicy, even black pepper. The patient’s immune system will be compromised, so ensure your food hygiene is meticulous and avoid any foods that could contain live bacteria, such as live yoghurts, blue cheese, soft eggs, or shellfish.
  • Ensure they have a plentiful supply of drinks within reach. Being well hydrated can really help ease the side effects.
  • Expect that the patient will not want to speak to you for long.
  • Use your initiative and look out for things that need doing. Jobs, such as loading and unloading the dishwasher, watering plants, taking the bins out, cleaning the kitchen work surfaces or sorting the garden are all really helpful.
  • Ask the patient if there is anything specific they would like you to do.
  • Be aware that there is a chemo hotline that is available 24/7 for advice about anything you are worried about, regarding the patient’s condition. If they are feeling very poorly, they may not want any intervention, but if you are unhappy with how they are, it is ALWAYS best to ring for advice from a professional. You will not be wasting anybody’s time. Take the patient’s temperature and ring the chemo hotline or 111, which is the NHS urgent helpline.


  • Expect them to be their normal self. They are likely to be more irritable and disinterested than usual, and some days may not want to interact at all. This is due to the drugs and is nothing personal.
  • Share unhelpful anecdotes, such as a person you know that “had cancer and died”, or suggest that kale, positive thinking or cannabis oil will cure everything.
  • Express your own distress about the patient’s condition- they have enough to cope with, without having to deal with your emotions as well.

Want to help in other ways?

If you’re unable to physically help, then cards and messages (without expectation of reply) are always appreciated. See if your friend has a list, such as an Amazon list, of things that may be helpful. This website has collated some ideas from current cancer patients as to gifts that may make a difference.

Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev on Unsplash

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