Finding out that a friend or loved one has cancer brings on a mix of emotions, from shock to fear to intense love. And chances are, your first instinct is to figure out a way you can help them, but you're not sure exactly how.

One of the best things you can do to start is to educate yourself on their cancer and the common treatments, so that you have some context for what they’re going through. But when it comes to dealing with cancer, everyone’s different. So below, we explain a variety of ways to offer support.

Support someone with cancer by taking things off their to-do list

If someone’s going through cancer treatment, they’re probably experiencing frequent periods of fatigue. Taking care of certain tasks or responsibilities for them can be a way to make their days easier, while showing that you’re thinking about them.

Helpful things you can do for someone with cancer, or to help support their family members and loved ones, include:

  • Driving them to appointments and sitting with them during chemo treatments (if allowed)
  • Driving them to appointments
  • Picking up prescriptions
  • Cooking meals or setting up a meal train
  • Grocery shopping and other errands
  • Babysitting
  • Laundry

However, some people are sensitive about asking for help. So, be sure to ask if it’s okay for you to help out with specific things before you do them. For example, rather than asking an open-ended question like “What can I do to help?”, ask your friend or loved one if you can bring them dinner or drive them to an upcoming doctor appointment.

Asking before you help is also a good idea in case there are important things to be aware of. For example, your loved one may not have much of an appetite, or they may only be able to tolerate certain foods because of the treatment they’re undergoing. In that case, it might be more helpful if you offer to cook meals for their family or caregiver.

This is another important point: even if they don’t need much direct help while going through treatment, you can still offer to do things for the people closest to them. These people are probably putting a lot of physical and mental energy into caring for that person, and your help may be well appreciated.

Support someone with cancer by giving them attention and positive messages

When someone we care about is going through something difficult, it’s normal to want to give them positive messages. We want to make sure they know how much we care about them – whether that’s in the form of visits, phone calls or letters and texts. But with something like cancer, it’s especially important to be thoughtful about what your friend or loved one may want to hear, and when. Cancer treatment can be a long process, and everyone responds to it differently.

For starters, just like with offers of help, be sure to ask before you visit or call. Be flexible and check in at regular intervals – not just after their diagnosis or at the beginning of their treatment. Sickness can be unpredictable, and they may have to turn you down or cancel depending on how they feel. To help with this, communicate that it’s okay for them to do so, so that they don’t feel pressured to see you or talk if they don’t feel up to it.

What to say to someone with cancer

The best thing you can do when you’re talking to someone with cancer is to follow their lead. This will be easier once you’ve seen or talked with them a couple of times, but in the beginning, think about what your relationship with them is like, and start conversations accordingly. Do they talk freely about how they’re feeling? Do they prefer to talk about things outside of themselves, such as their favorite sport or TV show? Do they like being around people, even if there’s nothing to talk about?

Whatever the case may be, it can be helpful to keep in mind when you’re visiting or writing them. But if you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask what they’d prefer – it’s better than trying to guess.

What not to say to someone with cancer

Another part of following someone’s lead is being careful about assumptions. Even if you mean them to be encouraging, phrases like “I know how you feel,” “You’re so strong” or “It’s going to be okay” can have the opposite effect. Generally, it’s better to say things like “I’m here for you” that reinforce that you care and want to be of service.

It’s also a good idea to withhold advice or opinions on their treatment unless they ask for them. Once they’re in treatment, that means that they’ve talked to a team of professionals that specialize in treating cancer, and have agreed to treatments that make the most sense for their situation. Second-guessing or suggesting alternative treatments is unlikely to be helpful.

Still not sure what to say? Give a care package.

Sometimes a simple gift can help brighten someone’s day and be enough to show that you care for them. It can be something as simple as a book, puzzle, subscription to a streaming service, or their favorite treat (that they are able to stomach while going through chemo). Other gifts that tend to be useful during chemo include warm fuzzy blankets or socks, a pillow, loungewear, lip balm, and ginger tea or candies.

Be there, however you can

The right actions and words from friends and loved ones can do a lot for a cancer patient’s outlook and quality of life over the course of diagnosis and treatment. But if you aren’t sure exactly what to do or say, don’t worry – as long as you’re being respectful and following their example, the person you care about will get the true message: that you’re there for them.