March 26, 2024

“Let me know what you need.” It is a simple phrase that comes from a place of love and support, something we have all said, but a phrase that can be one of the most frustrating things to hear as a cancer patient.  

We asked our patient support group, when they were diagnosed with bowel cancer, what were the most helpful and unhelpful things friends and family said or did. There were some recurring themes. We put some of them together to help you help someone with cancer. 

“Just let me know if I can help”—Although well-meaning, and it can feel like the right place to start when you don’t know how to help, it can often create more stress for the patient. “It added too much mental load to myself and my partner,” says a bowel cancer patient. “I don’t know what I need a lot of the time, and I really don’t want to ask,” says another.  

The solution – Coming to your loved one with what you can do to help – offering practical examples and checking in if that is okay. Bowel cancer patient Stacey says she found it “important for friends to have decided how they want to help first. The friends who said [for example:] 

  • ‘Hey, can I take the kids to the zoo and off your hands all Sunday arvo?’ 
  • ‘I’m making you a bunch of meals to freeze. Is that ok?’  
  • ‘I’d like to drive you to and from chemo. Let me know what days and if that’s all right.’  

These things were awesome.” Nada says, “When they have said, ‘We are planning to do X, will that be helpful?’ It’s been way easier to say Yes or No thanks, and we have that covered.”  

‘I don’t know what to say or do, so I say/do nothing at all’– Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for bowel cancer patients to be ‘ghosted’ by friends or even family after telling them of their diagnosis. Some can be selfish for reasons, but most of the time, it is because they feel uncomfortable, deeply emotional about the news or don’t know how to help or what to say. This results in saying nothing at all; withdrawing altogether can be extremely hurtful to the cancer patient.  

The solution – What we hear time and time again from bowel cancer patients is that it is a very lonely and isolating experience to have cancer. It can feel uncomfortable or awkward for those around them to talk about it, but pushing through and reaching out could mean the difference between the cancer patient having a good or bad day. From three different patients’ perspectives:  

  • “It is just such an extremely lonely experience, so I feel like offering a message or some loving words regularly means so much,” says Adrienne 
  • “I found just them being there to talk about things and listen to how you’re feeling to be the most helpful.” 
  • “Checking in and visiting, letting me know what’s going on in their world; mine’s just medical, and to hear something else is good for the soul,” says Rachel 

At the end of the day, it is important to remember:

“This is still your friend or loved one. Just because they have cancer, doesn’t mean they are cancer.” – Vicotria, BCNZ nurse.   

We have collated all the uncut answers from our patient support group, including advice from our nurse, into a document you can access or share HERE.