How to Support Your Cancer Patient in a Pandemic When You Can’t Be There to Hug or Help

Cancer is hard enough on its own. Add in the justifiable fear and preventative measures of a highly infectious disease running rampant around our country and you have a lonely, disheartening battle where loved ones cannot physically rally around each other in support and commiseration. You want to go visit, to hug, to help, to simply be there, yet you can’t. This sucks beyond sucking. Insult to injury.

However, you don’t have to be in person for your patient to truly feel your love and care. I went through cancer twice with no family local to me; my siblings and parents always had to support me from thousands of miles away. The things they did from afar were absolutely still meaningful and helpful. Here are some of the most resonant efforts that don’t require in-person delivery.

Send Care Packages. Mere days after my second diagnosis which came on the heels of a move, Brandi dropped off a basket with books, a doormat for my new house, and a chenille blanket. Five years later, I still step on that doormat, use that blanket on my bed every day, and blather about both to Brandi whenever we drink together. Soft, cozy things like fuzzy socks and versatile scarves are the best: nothing else will communicate your missing hug like a warm blanket in her favorite color. Throw in some pampering treats the recipient likes: chocolate, skin care, candles, perfume, bath bombs, etc. Symptom-related utilitarian items are great IF you know what the person is experiencing; my sister Jen filled a box with dry mouth relief aids I never needed. But some utilitarian things are more universal: a great water bottle, a variety pack of tea, snack packages, sucking candy, lip balm. Space things out and send different things at different times to keep the love flowing.

Send cards and letters. Although Jen missed the mark with her dry-mouth aids, she nailed this category. Even from across the country, Jen felt as present to me as anyone in town. I must have received several cards a week from her throughout four months of treatment. From funny to heartfelt, from barely signed to long missives inserted, her cards ran the gamut. She also sent old letters she had kept from our youth, which was hilarious and fostered much reminiscing. Your cards don’t have to be perfectly worded; they don’t even have to be full-on Get Well cards. [I love these truth-bomb cards if you’re not sure what to say and don’t want to get too sappy.] I kept them all and displayed some of my favorites on my nightstand. Do this as much as you can, opening mail from a loved one is pure pleasure.

Use Technology. Some of my favorite moments in the chemo infusion chair were courtesy of technology that made it feel like people were there with me. Several days were passed with joke-filled threads on Facebook, with the most prolific participation from a friend in South America. A few opposite-coast friends sent songs and playlists through Spotify. Group text threads, FaceTime and Skype calls, rambling emails about daily life — all efforts from faraway friends made me feel their presence and their care. Find out which platforms your patient has or is willing to get, and then use them liberally. Send silly pictures on Snapchat, chat on WhatsApp, share greetings and playlists and memes and photos and jokes and stories wherever they are. This is an instance we can all agree that insidious technology is good.

Arrange for Services. Friends in town often rallied during my treatment by delivering food or coming over to help clean and do laundry, which is both generous and thoughtful. Then again, the food lovingly prepared for us sometimes failed to appeal to any or all of us eating it, and it can be uncomfortable to be sick in bed while peers are tending to our chores. I much preferred when faraway family contributed to a cleaning service fund and sent dining gift cards, including some for the local restaurant delivery service. The upshot of sending a service is that you know the cleaning will be at a professional level and more flexible food options will match your patients needs and desires. You’re not failing by sending food and chores by proxy, you’re winning.

Ask What They Need. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually an option that is often overlooked or mishandled. I knew that people were genuinely trying to help when they asked “What can I do for you?” But the focus on the answer was not what I as the patient wanted but on how that particular person should behave. My snarky internal response was “How should I know what you can do? I don’t know your life, bitch.” [It sounded funnier in my head than it does here, I swear.] Asking what the patient needs helps you both out: they get something they truly want, you get to be the one who gets it for them. If they can’t answer yet, it helps them focus on their needs and desires. They may come up with something later, come to you with this newly discovered need, and then you get to be the hero who both encouraged the discovery and delivered the needed thing. They’ll hug you that much harder once you get to be there in person at last.

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