This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.
Congratulations! Your order qualifies for free shipping You are $59 away from free shipping | your purchase supports kids with cancer

Need help finding your perfect system? Take our quiz.

Need help finding your perfect system? Take our quiz.

11 Best Ways to Help Your Partner with Cancer

In my family, we have (unfortunately) experienced a lot of cancer. Right after I finished chemo, my mom was diagnosed with her second bout of breast cancer. She'd never been through chemo before, and because I'd just been through it I knew how to help her. 

Unfortunately most people don't know how to be good caregivers to a cancer patient; when you haven't been through it, you don't know what to expect. In my support groups, I often hear women frustrated with their husbands or partners, who aren't very understanding or aren't meeting their needs.

It's true that we, as patients, need to learn to ask for help. But it's also true that coming up with ways other people can help is a lot of emotional labor for someone who's already exhausted. 

Being a cancer patient is exhausting, but being a caregiver isn't easy, either. It's important to take care of yourself and your own needs so that you don't get overwhelmed and impatient. Finding support in a therapist or support group can be a lifeline.

So with that in mind, here's a list of things you can do to be an excellent caregiver:

1. Rally friends and family to help with meals, childcare, and cleaning

Some people are very private about their cancer diagnosis, and some people are more public. It's important to respect the wishes of the person with cancer —they may not want the attention or what they view as pity. However one of the greatest gifts I received from cancer was the clear message that I am loved and supported by my friends and family. The only way I learned that was by telling people that I had cancer.

Encourage your loved one to share their diagnosis with the people they trust. As the caregiver, quietly encourage these people to reach out with cards, emails, or texts - but let them know that it can be tiring to respond, so not to expect a response. These messages can really make the patient feel loved.

The more you can encourage other people to help, the less falls on your shoulders. It is a lot to be the emotional and physical support person and take care of everything else. Meal trains, childcare, and house cleaners are priceless.

2. Give your loved one something to look forward to

It’s really easy to get depressed, so always having something to look forward to is essential. During chemo, "good days" are often predictable - they're usually the day or two right before an infusion. Try to schedule something to look forward to on these days. For my friend Kate, this was church every Sunday. For me, it was a short outing somewhere pretty or a social date with someone easy to be around. If every day is the same and you're always laying in the house day after day, you can get real depressed real fast.

3. Be the go-between between the patient and exhausting friends + family

Regarding social contact - this has to be with people who are easy to be around. We all have friends who don't do well with social cues and often overstay their welcome or don't realize that unannounced visits aren't okay. Social contact with people like that aren't a good choice during cancer treatment.

My hardest time was during the holidays, when people got busy and my caregivers and I didn’t see anyone but each other for weeks. If you can call people to remind them to call (but don’t tell your patient that you’re doing it), it would make a big difference. People have lives and don’t realize that on chemo the days drag on for ages.

4. Be the one who manages visits from friends and family

Make sure that visits are short, maybe 30 minutes. Your loved one will probably not set dates up because it's so tiring, so setting them up yourself (and letting people know that they may need to cancel last minute) would be very helpful. Protect your loved one from getting exhausted by making sure people know it’s a short visit, and make sure not to set these dates up with people who are exhausting to be around.

5. Understand that exhaustion is real, and don't take it personally

Weird things are exhausting. If your loved one says she doesn’t want to do something, listen to her the first time because repeating it is exhausting. Sometimes even talking or breathing is exhausting. Things that are exhausting one day might not be exhausting the next. If she shoots down an idea you have, try not to take it personally. It might be a good idea on a different day.

6. Daily walks and time outside are important

My oncologist highly recommended daily walks, citing research that shows walking while birds are tweeting helps with fatigue. I know this sounds weird, but it is strangely calming! Daily walks with someone (these are short walks - maybe you can go sometimes or have a friend join).

You may need to drive to a flat place if you have hills or stairs. Don't expect the patient to take a dog on this walk alone; they won’t be able to hold on to the leash. Do this at least once a day, sometimes twice. It’s only about 15 minutes or so.

Even sitting outside in the sun for awhile can make a huge difference. I needed to be reminded to do this every day, and when I did it made me feel so much better.

7. Help with the kids

When a parent of young kids has cancer, it's hard to explain to kids what's going to happen, and even harder to come up with ideas to entertain them that aren't exhausting. Getting the kids a book that explains cancer in a non-scary way is Step #1, but that's only the beginning. 

Try to schedule some easy activities for a parent with cancer to do with their child. This is helpful for a few reasons:

  1. you're taking the emotional labor out of coming up with ideas
  2. you're providing a way that they can still connect with their kids
  3. you're making the kids feel better, so their behavior will improve.
  4. you're making the kids less stressed, which makes their parents less stressed.

This can be in the form of a Netflix subscription, easy crafts, etc. This calendar helps kids cope with a parents' cancer diagnosis and treatment by helping them understand all the changes that happen during treatment.

8. Taking over the responsibilities 

Even the pressure to respond to emails or phone calls was enough to sink me. My mom did a great job of making sure people were not my job to deal with.

The pressure to clean and cook meals being lifted also made an incredible difference. Often, your child's school will allow your kids to get lunch for free, which can relieve a lot of stress as well. 

There may be nonprofits in your area that provide dinners and free cleaning services to cancer patients. Take advantage of them! 

9. Keep a positive attitude

Positivity and a sense of humor will make or break you. Try to keep away from people who are crabby or tell depressing stories about their cousins uncle who had a horrible experience with cancer/chemo. Make jokes. See if you can find funny or uplifting movies to watch every once in awhile, even if they are old.

10. Physical touch and pain relief

The only good thing about a bald head is a head massage. Rub your partner's head in the evenings and give light neck and back massages. His or her whole body is likely to ache. My partner did this for me and I really looked forward to it; sometimes he would rub my legs too because they ached. 

Warm epsom salt baths really helped my aching body a lot, but the heat also made me more tired; run the bath and help your partner out of it if necessary.

11. Do your best to force them to accept help

Most people are very active and used to doing things for themselves. It will be hard to accept help, but in my experience it is totally necessary. Even if your loved one says no at first, keep offering all of these things, over and over, the whole time, because they might give in later when the chemo gets harder.

I hope helps you! Chemo can be totally brutal, but if you're lucky, this will make your relationship stronger. This list was inspired by my incredible caregivers - my mom and my boyfriend - who seemed to do everything right during the worst time of my life. Thank you, Mom and Bear.