13 ways to help a parent with cancer

Lauren Del Turco
Jan. 30, 2020
12 ways to help a parent with cancer

Finding out that someone you love has cancer can be terrifying and overwhelming — and when that someone is your parent, the news is even more ground-shaking. Suddenly, someone who has likely been a source of strength and comfort in your life will need your support as they navigate treatment options and the whirlwind of questions, battles and decisions that come along with a cancer diagnosis. 

Though it’s completely natural to experience feelings of helplessness and confusion throughout your family’s cancer journey, there are many ways you can help a parent with cancer throughout their treatment. Here are just 13 ways to do that. 

1. Just listen

Well-intentioned as concerns, ideas and suggestions might be, doctors say many cancer patients become stressed and overwhelmed by family input, especially right after a diagnosis.

“The first thing we tell loved ones is to listen to where patients are at and to what they really want and need from their family,” says Dr. Mary Jane Massie, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

“Every patient needs something different,” says Shikha Jain, M.D., FACP, assistant professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center’s Division of Hematology, Oncology & Cell Therapy in Chicago. “Some people need more comfort and emotional support, others are really action-oriented and just want to write down a plan and next steps and others don’t want help because they want to take back control of the situation.”

Is your parent interested in those daily inspirational text messages or your input about their doctors? Before you put your two cents in about treatment options or grocery shopping, listen to what they really want and need from you.

2. Organize how you’ll help

For many families with a parent who is fighting cancer, the rush to help can transform into stress. 

“While stocking your mom up on meals is a lovely gesture, she doesn’t want 30 lasagnas delivered to her on the same day,” says Massie. “If multiple family members will be helping out, organize who will be responsible for what — and when.” 

One smart way to get your support crew organized is to create a Google Calendar or spreadsheet to share with other family members that you can update with appointments and a running list of to-dos (like chores and bill payments) that still need tackling. This way, family members can sign up to take on certain tasks.

3. Offer rides and companionship

“For older people, people with other health impairments or who have limited resources, just managing how to get to and from appointments can be incredibly stressful,” says Massie. 

That said, you’ll do well to offer to drive them or go along for the ride, which will be seen as really helpful, Massie says. In some cases, the offer of companionship may make the difference between them attending instead of missing appointments and treatment, especially if your parent is undergoing more aggressive treatment, which can leave them fatigued.

4. Offer random acts of kindness

Instead of asking your parent how you can help out (Massie says broad questions like this can leave patients flustered), put specific favors and offers to help on the table. 

“Say your cleaning service is coming over on Thursday,” Massie says. “Propose to your parent that you bring them by to help around the house however your parent sees fit.”

This way, you help take some of the daily burden off your parent, show how much you care for them and prevent them from feeling burdened to come up with ways to put you to work.

5. Hire someone to help manage paperwork

For many patients and families facing cancer, an influx of confusing paperwork and bills quickly becomes difficult to manage. 

“If you realize dad can’t possibly handle all of the bills and insurance information involved in treatment, and that you can’t either, you can hire someone to do it for you who is accustomed to handling that type of paperwork,” says Massie. “I often feel that this is a really good use of money.”

Jain recommends starting by meeting with a social worker and the finance or billing team at your parent’s medical clinic or practice. If they can’t manage your paperwork themselves, they’ll be able to point you in the direction of an independent professional (like an attorney or healthcare administrator) you can hire to help. 

“These professionals can provide assistance and guidance and may have information about coupons, discounts and other benefits you might quality for,” Jain says.

6. Prioritize your own self-care

"It's incredibly important to not forget that caregivers need care, as well,” says Jain. “It’s very easy to become all-engrossed in taking care of someone else — and no caregiver is at their best when they have completely lost their own sense of self.”

Not to mention, the loved ones of cancer patients often experience all sorts of complex emotions — like guilt, fear and helplessness, says Aurelie Lucette, Ph.D., clinical health psychologist. You may not be sick, but your experience caring for a parent who has cancer is still taxing in many ways. 

"Learn what steps to take for your own physical health and emotional well-being," says Deborah Smith, senior vice president for Health Initiatives at the American Cancer Society, New England Division. "Taking care of yourself can make a big difference in the way you feel about your role as a caregiver and in your ability to perform these new tasks and activities.”

Lucette recommends looking into caregiver support groups or counseling available through your parent’s cancer clinic and leaning into self-care practices like journaling.

7. Rally the troops on an ongoing basis 

“I recently worked with a woman who received so many flowers after her first cancer-related procedure that she couldn’t see the door of her hospital room,” says Massie. “Seven months later, though, when she was going through radiation, there were no more flowers, letters or phone calls — and she felt rather forgotten about.” 

Though many family members and friends tend to rally just after a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, keep the long-term in your mind — and be prepared to encourage others to reach out in the months that follow the initial rush of support.

8. Take notes

“When most patients sit for those first couple of oncologist meetings, they’re so overwhelmed that they maybe remember 20 percent of the conversation,” says Jain.

If your parent is amenable to it, sit in on appointments with them and take as many notes as possible, either with a pen and paper or on your phone or laptop. 

Smith recommends writing down notes about the doctor's plan, goals and next steps. Include specifics like medication timing and potential side-effects.

9. Practice patience and empathy

Supporting a loved one through their cancer journey is sure to be challenging and frustrating. 

“If your parent is going through chemotherapy, they might ask you to make them something to eat, only to feel too nauseous to eat it when it’s ready,” says Jain. “It can be really aggravating, but it’s so important to be patient and try to understand your parent’s experience.” 

10. Let your parent initiate cancer conversations

“Family members often come to me asking how much they should talk about the cancer with their parents,” says Jain. “Some people talk about it all the time, and that’s just how they cope. Others, meanwhile, don’t like talking about it unless they're at their clinic visits — and that’s fine, too.”

Jain recommends that family members allow the patient to drive everyday conversations about their cancer. Sure, some timely matters — such as treatment plans and logistics — need to be brought up; however, when it comes to less pressing conversations, follow your parent’s lead.

11. Write letters of encouragement

“Writing letters can be a useful way to communicate emotions and share encouragement with your parent,” says Lucette. “You might write them a note to cheer them on for their first day of treatment, for example.”

If you have difficulty expressing your feelings or motivating your parent, writing can be a great way to express your thoughts with them, she says. 

12. If financially feasible, consider home care

Bringing home care on-board before you become burned out from being pulled in too many directions can make a huge difference for your parent and for your relationship with your parent,” says Ruth Linden, Ph.D., president of Tree of Life Health Advocates, an independent, California-based consulting group that helps clients navigate healthcare challenges.

Consider hiring a certified nursing assistant (CNA) or a visiting nursing assistant (VNA). These skilled nurses can administer IV medications, take vital signs and perform other medical needs in the comfort of your parent's home.

13. Ask questions

“Empower yourself to ask questions when speaking with your loved one’s doctors, nurses or other clinicians,” says Laura Farrington, D.O., a medical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago. “It can be easy to just nod and say ‘yes’ without fully understanding what they are hearing or being told is happening — and if you’re unsure about something, chances are that your parent is, too.” 

Don’t be afraid to speak up — and check out the American Cancer Society’s list of specific questions that patients and families should ask their oncologist.

Final advice

“Though every cancer diagnosis is different, it’s almost always a very emotional experience for the patient and their family,” says Massie. 

The importance of tending to your parent’s emotional needs — and your own — throughout the process cannot be overstated.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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