Top 10 Things to Support the Cancer Survivor in Your Life

I have been a registered nurse for thirteen years. One might assume that, as a nurse, you would know everything a patient would need to make treatment more bearable. However, when my best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, everything I thought I knew was utterly irrelevant. It was not until I decided to create a “chemo bag”, that I realized I had no clue which items were useful. As my friend graciously accepted the bag of assorted items, it became apparent that most of the items were not as helpful as I thought (though I meant well). How did my training not prepare me to know exactly which items a survivor actually needs?

Today, my best friend is fighting yet another round of breast cancer. This time, I am determined to support her by identifying things she can really use. My research involved interviews with cancer patients and caregivers, coupled with my experience serving patients every day. My hope is that my learnings will help others looking to provide support to the cancer survivors in their lives.

Keep reading for my list of ten things cancer survivors could really use and find beneficial…

Spoiler alert: things that fit in a “chemo bag” may not be what your survivor needs!

1. Purchase head-coverings that are practical

A survivor going through cancer treatment can often end up losing hair. Alopecia (hair loss) happens because specific treatments like chemotherapy do not discriminate against cells and will often attack those cells that grow rapidly, including the hair on our bodies. Show your support for your person and go with them to pick out something to aid in this side effect. There are numerous variations to choose from. Often it can be downright overwhelming! Having your support would be extremely helpful. Whether it’s a turban, wig, hat –or something else –make sure you consider comfort. Look for something cooler if the person wearing a head covering tends to get hot flashes.

2. Prepare foods they can eat, tolerate, and enjoy

Taste buds are another part of the body that can be affected by the treatments for cancer. Certain foods they once loved can taste different and no longer be appetizing. Although everyone is different, most survivors I asked had relatively the same thoughts on the types of foods they could tolerate. Those items were soups or broths, bland-soft foods, and protein drinks. A few other notes from my conversations:

  • It is common for a person to develop mouth sores and that make eating painful. That said, eating something warm and soft can be easier to eat.
  • Another common side effect is metallic tastes to foods once found enjoyable. Bland foods may help reduce this. Protein drinks are also always a fantastic way to help fatigue
  • Protein is a critical element in providing energy for our bodies. Including high-nutrition foods will help your survivor stay nourished and strong.

3. Include heated vests or gloves to help maintain body temperature

Your person will most likely take multiple trips to a frigid doctor’s office, or perhaps they are getting infusions of medications where they sit in a room (also cold) for hours at a time. If you are itching to get them something tangible, why not invest in something that keeps them warm? Make sure they keep an eye on their skin to ensure these items do not cause irritation. I would suggest keeping heated items over clothes and not directly on the bare skin. The addition of gloves can help keep fingers and hands warm, which are the parts of the body that get the coldest because they are so far from our heart and our core. Keeping their core warm with the vest will help keep limbs warm too. With these tools in hand, they will be a well-insulated, cancer-fighting machine.

4. Supply hand cream and lip balm to keep skin hydrated

Another significant side effect of treatment is cracking hands and lips. Increasing water intake and using lotions and lip balm can help with this symptom. Go for options that are unscented, as treatment may alter senses and may cause nausea from strong perfumes.

5. Include neck pillows to promote comfort

Fatigue can make even the simplest task of sitting up a chore. Sitting up can often be the only option to get comfortable and prevent strain. A neck pillow is a great option to ensure comfort–and is also helpful when undergoing treatment. Help ease the burden by giving something supportive for their neck.

6. Provide a plethora of clean sheets, ready to use

This one, for me, was a true revelation. Sometimes, side effects can make a person nauseous, and accidents happen. Also, who has the strength to put on a fitted sheet on a good day, let alone one, when you feel like you have 1% left on your battery? It is key to have a nice stash of clean sheets ready to put on their bed. That way, they can take the old one off and put on the new one without having to worry about doing a load of laundry. So simple and effective.

7. Send a piece of snail mail to boost morale

I still love to get a letter in the mail from someone. It is a simple thing that can make the most difference. Send them a card, just to say hello. You do not have to get sappy and emotional. The last thing the survivor wants is to be reminded of their current situation. They want a distraction. Give them something to smile about! Handwrite a brief synopsis of the things happening in your life. Depending on who you are writing to, a family picture or even a kiddos drawing can be a nice touch.

8. Help with housework for times when they just cannot find the energy

Fatigue is a significant side effect for most people. Fatigue can be caused by cancer itself, the mental drain of dealing with the stressors associated with diagnosis, or the treatments used to combat cancer. You could either get them a gift card for a house cleaning service, or you could volunteer your time to help them with their daily chores. Bonus: Helping clean their house not only keeps them occupied, but also provides good company and conversation (if they feel up to it, of course).

9. Help with shopping for groceries and more

There are numerous ways this can get this accomplished. Get a gift card to the grocery store, enlist a delivery service, pick them up and take them shopping with you, or have them make you a list and you take care of it. Bonus: You could offer to pick up something for dinner for both of you and cook it in their company. Use that time to listen to their concerns. Help them take their minds off what is going on with them and tell them what is going on with you.

10. Volunteer your time to provide transportation to and from treatments

Survivors often do not want to feel like they are a burden by asking for help getting to treatments. These can be multiple times a week, and the simple task of driving can be taxing. Do not wait for them to ask for a ride. Be the first to offer up your time. If able, see if you can ask others in your circle to alternate. Create a calendar so everyone knows which days they are responsible for. Take the worry entirely out of your person’s hands.

Every survivor is different and will have their own needs.

There is only one way to know –and that is to ask. So, if your person is willing and able to tell you what they need, ask them. If they are not in a place where they can tell you their needs, that is okay too. My friend was more on the “I do not want to trouble you” side of things. So, if you are at a loss of what to do or, maybe you are just looking for a good starting point, then start with this list. You can then create a new list, as each day brings on new challenges.

That said, the most important thing the cancer survivor needs is YOU. They do not need a huge bag full of things. Provide them with stimulating conversation and help them take their minds off cancer. Give them a distraction from their situation and tell them what is happening in your life. Be a good listener and be there for them with hugs and tissues. Their fight is exhausting, and the thing they need more of is your support. Camaraderie can help survivors gain the most momentum in their battle.

It is just that simple. Just be there.

Courtney Battaglia is a registered nurse with over thirteen years of experience in multiple specialties. Today she is using her background in the education field, working with clinicians in many areas. Courtney’s goals are to use her working knowledge of nursing in the form of writing to help individuals with a wide array of needs.

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The Livestrong Foundation improves the lives of people affected by cancer now.

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