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I Have Cancer, Now What?

cancer diagnosis

Lisa Lefebvre, the founder of Mend Together, first thought “I have cancer, now what?” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38. Lisa’s own fifteen-year cancer journey gave her first-hand experience of the overwhelming feeling of a cancer diagnosis.  

According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly 40% of all men and women will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point during their lifetime. Here are some ideas on the first steps to take after receiving the news that you have cancer. 

What should you do after a cancer diagnosis?

Once a  doctor says cancer, most of us hear nothing after that word. “The first time I was diagnosed I had an unexplained overwhelming impulse to go shopping for a frivolous item. I ended up at Barney’s buying some wine glasses. Something I didn’t need or want. I was in a daze and trying to pretend everything was normal,” says Lefebvre. 

Fifty-six-year-old prostate cancer patient Louis Giottonini recalls a numb hazy feeling, followed by the immediate desire to put together an action plan for “how do I get rid of this quickly?” According to Integrative Care Physician Thomas Sult, MD, a methodical approach is needed. His first words of advice are to slow down and remember this is a marathon and not a sprint. “You need to sit with the words and the diagnosis, breathe, and prepare yourself for a potentially long treatment process,” says Dr. Sult. 

I have cancer: questions to ask

The first of the basic steps is to learn as much as you can about your diagnosis and make a list of questions to ask your oncologist. Some questions to consider:

  • Can you explain the characteristics of my diagnosis? Is there a tumor? Where is it? How large is it?  How slowly or quickly is it growing? Has it spread to other areas of the body? What is the data on the survival rates of my type of cancer? Is my cancer curable or just treatable? 
  • What are my treatment options? What is the expected impact of the treatments on my survival rate? Find out the benefits offered by each treatment such as quality of life and impact on survivorship. You can also ask if the goal is to cure my cancer or extend my life. 
  • What side effects can I expect? You can expect side effects with any medication. Ask your doctor what are typical and atypical side effects. 
  • What is the likelihood of recurrence? Most cancers carry some risk of metastasization.  

Tips to Consider After a Cancer Diagnosis 

  • Be Wary of Information Sources Although Dr. Google can help provide information, it is important to be aware of the plethora of misinformation that exists so be cautious about believing everything you read.  Visit unbiased, trustworthy websites such as the American Cancer Society. Cancer is a very individual disease and only your care team can help you know and advise you on your specific circumstances. 
  • Explore all Treatment Options Cancer treatments are continually evolving and the approach to treatments vary considerably. Dr. Sult recommends that you, “Resist the temptation to be fatalistic. Cancer treatment is not your grandparents’ treatment anymore. There are many good options for most cancers.” 
  • Don’t Go At It Alone When Louis’s wife, Mary Ann, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 68 she was besieged with anxiety and knew it was too much to take in on her own.  “I was having a personal crisis and my ability to retain any meaningful information was practically nil”, she said. Mary Ann recommends bringing along a trusted, reliable partner, family member or friend to appointments to take notes.
  • Always Get a Second Opinion In order to feel confident about your treatment plan, Mend Together’s founder, Lisa strongly suggests getting a second opinion preferably from a teaching/research hospital to be sure you have access to the latest research and treatment protocols. Many institutions offer remote consultations.  

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Now what? Coping with a cancer diagnosis

Just as each case of cancer is individual, so is the way that a person copes with the diagnosis. A few coping strategies include: 

Take some time

Give yourself time to process the news you just received. You may want to share your diagnosis with just a few people at first until you orient yourself to your new reality. 

Consider your needs

Once you share your news with a broader social circle, including extended family, friends, and colleagues, expect to get many offers of help.

Start a page

You may want to consider starting a profile page on Mend Together to keep everyone updated at the same time on your cancer journey. It can be overwhelming to have to respond to each individual phone call, text and email. Mend Together offers a Community Journal that enables information to be shared in a private setting and gives friends and family a place to share encouraging words of support. 

Stay involved

Remain involved with work and leisure activities as much as you can so you have a life outside of cancer. 

Accept support

Cancer is expensive. The average cancer patient is hit with $16,400 in unexpected out-of-pocket expenses. Friends and family are going to ask how they can help. Mend Together also offers a way for friends and family to help alleviate the financial stress of cancer. 

It is normal to feel shy about accepting or asking for help during this time. Please resist this temptation. In this video Lisa explains that friends and family want to help, and how she learned that by accepting their support she was not only helping herself but for them as well. Lisa also learned that there is a scientific explanation behind hesitancy about asking for help. In this video, she explains why we are more comfortable with giving than receiving help.

Practice self-care

Take care of your mental health as well as your physical health. Keeping up social connections at this time is the number one thing you can do to improve your treatment outcomes. You can shop or even register for healing gifts that can help minimize symptoms or provide cheer on Mend Together.

Thoughts from our founder

Lisa’s own experience with cancer-related surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, radiation protocols, and hormone suppression therapy taught her many things but most notably, “people who’ve been there, can help get you there.” She learned that friends, family, colleagues, etc. want to help you cope but knowing how to help can be challenging. Lisa’s mission was to change that. She has been there, so she started Mend Together as a means for patients and their loved ones to get advice and support on making sense of one’s cancer journey. 

Getting extra cancer support

If you or someone you know is part of the 40% of people who have spoken the words, “I have cancer, now what?” know this: According to the American Cancer Society and other health groups, people who receive a cancer diagnosis are living longer. This fact is attributed to improvements in routine screenings, which often catch cancer before symptoms occur, and advancements in treatment protocols.

Don’t lose hope, choose optimism and support. Learn more about how our free resources like our Community JournalVolunteer Calendar, and Gift & Donation Registry make it easy to give and receive support when it’s needed most.

Marci Clow is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and writer of evidence-based food and nutrition communications.

Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.

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A simple guide on what to write to someone with cancer

No matter the form of communication, writing to someone with cancer has the ability to uplift spirits and soothe fears during a very lonely and bewildering time. This leaves many people wondering what to write to someone with cancer. 

Many people are too intimidated to write a letter to their friend or loved one diagnosed with cancer. This stems from fear of saying the wrong thing. Should you mention cancer at all? Talk about your own life? Try to be funny or avoid making jokes? It’s normal to be nervous about knowing what to say. But hearing from friends with messages of support can mean everything to someone with cancer.

Please check in often, either in person or with a letter or cards in the mail.  I know some people just simply didn’t know what to say or do.  But just being there would have helped me get through the tough times. A simple text asking how I managed my last chemo treatment would have showed me they were thinking of me.” – Deborah J. Breast Cancer Patient. 

5 steps for writing a letter to someone with cancer:

Step 1: How do I begin?

The first step in writing a letter to someone going through a life-altering illness is to make a firm decision to just do it. First, choose your paper or greeting card. Then, think about the spirit of what you want to convey, perhaps make a few notes about favorite shared memories, inspirational quotes or any goodies you might include. But the real first step is to commit to writing the letter. Carve out the time to do it and choose your medium. If it is an email you might want to include a musical or animated e-card with your letter. If it is a physical letter or card you might choose special stationary or stickers to personalize the envelope. Every little extra thought you put into it will be appreciated.

Step 2:  Acknowledge their situation and let them know they are not alone

When determining what to write to someone with cancer, the opening of your letter should convey the message that they are on your mind and you care.  Let them know you are aware of their cancer and that you are here for them. This beginning of the letter should be about you conveying your love and care. You want to be careful not to overstate or overpromise things you can’t control, because that can come across as inauthentic. Consider  phrases like:

  • I’m here for you.
  • I’m thinking of you.
  • You’re on my mind and in my heart.
  • I want to help.
  • You are not alone.
  • I’m here with you every step of the way.
  • You can call on me anytime.

Focus on connecting to your friend and don’t concentrate on cancer or healing. The one place to be more specific is when you let them know you are there for them.  Don’t say something like “If you need anything, I am here for you.”  That puts the burden on the person with cancer to come up with ideas for you. And people often don’t even know what help they need. Instead, make a specific offer like “I can help taking care of your animals”. Or “I have a car and can drive you to appointments if you need me.” Or “I would love to bring you some home cooked meals.” Offers of real help are appreciated and are much more impactful than a general offer of “Whatever you need.”

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Step 3: Share a story

After saying hello and letting your friend or loved one know they are not alone, the next part of the letter is a good place to share a story. It could be a precious memory the two of you share, or a funny story from your own life. The point is to connect the person with cancer the real world, remind them of a nice memory or give them a little gossip to enjoy. When figuring out what to write to someone with cancer, sharing something of yourself can be a great sustaining gift to someone with cancer. Humor is always appreciated.

“I always loved it when friends shared their laughter with me.  My sense of humor was and still is a big part of my life.  They knew this and did what they could to get me to smile.” –Rosie D. Ovarian Cancer Patient

Step 4: Add some inspiration

A nice addition to your letter to a person with cancer can be a poem, a quote, a prayer, a song lyric or even a joke you think they would enjoy. Something that touches you and might touch them.  Sometimes drawing on the wisdom of artists, thinkers, writers and philosophers can put people into a calm, meditative state and distract them from anxiety and fear. It may seem hokey, but if you choose words that inspire you from the heart, that will translate as a gesture of love and care.

Step 5: Add love

In closing the letter to a person with cancer, love is where you want to land.  Say in no uncertain terms how much you care, and perhaps even tell them a few things you love about them. You can add to this message with a hand drawn picture, hearts, stickers, any little extra consideration to put a smile on their face. But above all make sure this last part of your letter is full of love.  And then finally, put on the stamp and go to the mailbox or hit send. Make sure your message is received.

More tips on what to write to someone with cancer

Whether you are sending a letter, an email or a greeting card, here are a few more tips to help you write a letter to someone with cancer:

  • Start small – write a short note or postcard first saying that you’ve heard the news, you’re thinking of them and you will write them a letter soon.
  • Write from the heart- no matter how clumsy the words, speaking from the heart goes a long way
  • Be mindful of where they are in their cancer journey – in the early stages you may want to ask about their treatments and plans but in the later stages this may be less appropriate.
  • Don’t talk about other people you know with cancer. When we hear someone has cancer, you might want to relate by talking about someone else who has it too. This can be ill advised and it’s better to concentrate on your friend and their own journey.
  • Ask questions about how they are and what they have been up to — asking questions shows you are thinking about them, and also gives them something to respond to in their reply.
  • Keep to the positive and don’t share negative stories about cancer or other topics and refrain from complaining about anything to your friend in the letter.
  • Choose positive words, but don’t give people false hope or talk about other people’s positive cancer outcomes. Remember, each person is different, and hearing other people’s stories may be uncomfortable for your  friend or loved one.
  • If appropriate for your relationship, use humor to put a smile on their face.
  • Do not ask too many specific questions related to the disease, or about life expectancy statistics. This kind of information is between a person and her medical team and she will share with you if and when she wants to.
  • Accept that sometimes words may fail you. But don’t go silent. Even simple things like offering a hello, a hand-drawn happy face and an “I love you” are welcome.

And of course, the biggest tip of all is to just do it. Write that letter. It makes a huge difference.

Choosing a Cancer Card

Your words have kept me going through phone and email and they will do the same through the mail. I don’t care what you talk about: your goldfish, your ugly boss, America’s Next Top Model, whatever. Drop me a line to say hey and don’t be afraid to tell me about the daily stuff that’s getting you down (incontinent pets, loud street construction, etc.) It’s just a reminder that life goes on. Keep ‘em coming. I’m forever grateful.”

– Allison E.

For more ideas on how to express your support for someone you know who is dealing with cancer, you can also look to books like “There is No Good Card for This”  which is a guide to finding the right things to do, say, and even what to write to someone with cancer.

Another way to show continued support to someone with cancer is to create a Gift & Donation Registry for them to receive gifts and cash or set up a profile on the Mend Together online community for cancer patients and their caregivers. It is hard to know what to say or write to someone who is suffering. But as long as you speak from the heart, your message will be heard.

Kate Rigg is a cancer advocate and graduate from the Juilliard School in New York with an honors degree in creative writing from the University of Melbourne.

Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.

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How to Sleep with a Chemo Port: Tips & More

You may opt for a chemo port to help reduce treatment-related pain and anxiety caused by constant chemotherapy-related needle sticks. While daily life can go on as normal with venous port systems, it may take some getting used to and require some modifications; particularly how to sleep with a chemo port.

What can you do if you have trouble sleeping with your chemo port? Here, we will share with you what a chemo port is for, why you may want a chemo port placed, and how this medical device may or may not affect daily life, including sleep.

What is a chemo port?

A chemo port, also known as a port-a-cath, is a surgically implanted device. It is used for the administration of chemotherapy, taking a blood sample, administering blood transfusions, and delivering IV fluids. The port itself is a small circle that sits just under the skin, while a tube or catheter leads from the port directly into a large vein or artery. This device is a type of central venous catheter (CVC), similar to a PICC line. The port placement is typically in the upper chest or upper arm. Alternatively, PICCs are a soft tube inserted through the arm toward the heart.

A chemo port is implanted during an outpatient procedure and is typically placed on the chest. Some patients prefer to place it on their non-dominant side or opposite the side they sleep on. You will decide with your medical team which port is best for your course of treatment.

Why is a chemo port used?

Venous port devices can make it easier to receive treatment and ongoing care. Cancer treatment involves endless blood tests and IV administered medication that can go on for weeks, months, or even years. Venous port systems can spare you from additional discomfort, bruising, pain, and anxiety. Central catheter options can make treatments, procedures, and doctor’s appointments go more smoothly and minimize the impact on your quality of life.

One of the overarching benefits of using a central catheter or port is that they can last for months or years as you navigate through your cancer treatment plan. Compared to other types of catheters, the port lines only need to be flushed every few weeks rather than daily or weekly. Chemo port cleaning doesn’t occur as frequently as other types of catheters. The chemo port placement offers less risk of catheter pinch-off. It also allows you to engage in activities that improve your quality of life, like swimming or having a relaxing bath.

There are some disadvantages to using a central port. You may feel mild discomfort or chest pain following the implant that could impact your ability to get restful sleep.

It’s best to follow medical advice when determining if implantable devices are right for you. Your cancer care team will tell you if a port is ideal for your chemo treatment or radiation therapy.

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Can having a chemo port affect your daily routine?

You can fully participate in most everyday activities if you are feeling up to them, such as showering and bathing, going swimming, or exercising. Venous port systems do not need to be covered with gauze or a bandage when not in use. Also, they do not need to be maintained daily, although they do need to be flushed out between treatments.

However, you may be especially sensitive to extra pressure or weight on the area around your chemo port. Additionally, you may be uncomfortable with how your chemo port looks. Supporting your mental health through meditation guides, yoga, or organic, fragrance-free personal care items can be a welcome reprieve if you are feeling frustrated.

You can talk to your cancer care team about your chemo port placement as it pertains to your sleep position. Unfortunately, you might need to change sleeping positions. For example, if you sleep on your stomach, you’ll need to lay on your side or back instead. If the central port is installed on the right, you’ll have to sleep on your back or your left side. 

Venous port devices can cause mild discomfort at the implant site and by impacting how you have to lay in bed during sleep. However, getting restful sleep is essential for healing.

Tips for sleeping with a chemo port

It is already difficult to get comfortable during a chemotherapy cycle. Interrupted sleeping patterns due to venous port systems can make an already-challenging scenario even harder to navigate. Here are some tips that may help:

Tip 1: Try supportive sleep clothing

Chest implantation of a chemo port could tug on healing surgical scars and adjacent tissue. Breasts can also pull the sensitive skin around the chemo port area. Consider wearing soft fabrics to minimize friction. An ultra-soft sleeping bra or post-surgery tank top for sleeping could help keep breasts in place and make it easier to settle into a comfortable position.

Tip 2: Use pillows strategically

Careful sleeping positions may be the key to more comfortable sleeping with venous port systems, and pillows can help with that. Pregnancy pillows, body pillows, or surgery-specific items such as mastectomy pillows can be helpful. Mastectomy pillows or chemo port pillows are also a great cancer gift to add to your registry. Create your own free Mend Together registry here.  

Tip 3: Set up a relaxing sleep environment

If your chemo port is causing anxiety, a calming atmosphere can help you unwind. Try lowering the lights, aromatherapy, or meditation for sleep to find ways to calm your mind when it’s time to go to bed.

Tip 4: Know when to call your healthcare team

It is also important that you know the difference between discomfort and pain. It is normal if the chemo port site feels strange or foreign – after all, a medical device was just implanted into your body — but if your chemo port is burning, swollen, or showing any signs of infection, you must seek medical attention as soon as possible.

How long will sleep disruption last?

No two cancer journeys are the same. While your healthcare provider can provide insights into the road ahead, your experience will be unique to you. By using pillows, wearing comfortable clothing, and practicing self-care, you should be able to improve your comfort level within a few weeks

Live everyday life with some adjustments

Interrupted sleep is just one of the physical and emotional challenges you may go through when you receive a cancer diagnosis and begin treatment. With the right supportive clothing, perfectly arranged pillows, and tools to help maintain a sound mind, you can support your changing needs during treatment. Visit Mend Together to begin a Gift & Donation Registry you can use to choose the products and services you want to support your needs, including a good night’s rest.

Stella Morrison is an award-winning journalist who partners with mission-driven companies to share their stories. She is based in New York City.

Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.

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How to Think About Cancer Survival Rates

cancer survival rates

One of the first things people investigate when finding out someone they love has cancer is cancer survival rates. What’s your friend or loved one’s cancer survival rate? You’re worried and you want to know what’s going to happen. Will they be OK? Are they at risk of dying? If so, when? Is this type of cancer easy to cure—or isn’t it?

So many questions. You want to know more about their diagnosis, but you may be afraid to ask.

We’re here to help.

First, the facts. The following chart shows how many people are diagnosed with the type of cancer your loved one has, with the percentage of people who are alive five years after the diagnosis. After you find the relevant cancer survival rates, the more you’ll want to know about what it all means—and what it doesn’t.

What’s my loved one’s cancer survival rate?

This table from the National Cancer Institute shows the most current cancer statistics available, based on group data from 2008-2014. (Yes, this is the most recent data.) 

We’ve included 20 common types of cancer here. If you don’t see the type you’re looking for, or if you want to know more about the National Cancer Institute’s statistics, click here.

Cancer SiteIncidence Rate(per 100,000 people)(2011-2015)Survival Rate(%)(2008-2014)
Breast (in situ)16.4100
Corpus uteri13.382.5
Kidney and Renal Pelvis15.974.5
Leukemia: Lymphocytic6.879.7
Liver & Intrahepatic Bile Duct8.817.7
Lung and Bronchus54.618.6
Myeloid & Monocytic Lymphoma6.440.4
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma19.471.4
Urinary Bladder19.576.8

We know these numbers may be terrifying. But take a minute to pause because these numbers can be deceiving.

A cancer survival rate is based on hundreds or thousands of people. “These are population statistics. They don’t apply to individuals,” explains Karen R. Brown, LMHC, a psychotherapist specializing in traumatic life experiences. “A doctor cannot accurately determine how long people are going to live based on these numbers.”

How cancer survival rates are calculated—and what you may not realize

Researchers gather data about people with a specific type of cancer. They see how many people are diagnosed with it and how many are alive five years after diagnosis. For example, out of every 100 people diagnosed with myeloma, 51 are alive five years after being diagnosed.

Each group represents a wide variety of people with many differences. It includes people of all ages, in all types of health.

For example:

  • Some were diagnosed in advanced stages of cancer, while others were not.
  • Some were in the early stages of treatment, while others completed treatment.
  • Many had treatments that were five years old (or more) and not as effective as today’s treatments.
  • Some chose treatment based on cost, side effects or schedule—not necessarily the most effective treatment available.
  • Some were in poor health aside from cancer, while others were healthier.

You can see that there are many variations—many!

Your loved one’s cancer survival rate can’t tell you what will happen to them. Their future depends on their personal situation, like how advanced the cancer is, the effectiveness of his treatment, their overall health and so much more.

Thomas Sult, MD, a medical educator and author of Just Be Well, boils it down:

“As Mark Twain said, ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Statistics are about groups of people, not individuals. If I were to tell you that you had an 80 percent chance of five-year survival, what does that even mean? It certainly does not mean you’ll be 80 percent alive in five years. It’s a meaningless number.”

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How to Process Cancer Survival Rates

  1. Pause. Then take time to face your feelings.
    “Take a minute to process this info,” says Brown. It’s normal for our emotions to escalate when we first see these numbers. But you need time to digest what you just learned. The next step is to face it—head-on. “Pretending not to be frightened, angry, lost or confused will not help,” says Brown. But don’t sit with your emotions all by yourself and let them fester. Find an outlet.
  1. Avoid rumination.
    Working through your feelings is important. But ruminating—thinking the same thing over and over again—isn’t. “Ruminating is our worst enemy,” says Brown. It distracts us from facing our feelings and doesn’t help us heal. You can tell you’re ruminating if your thoughts are circular, obsessive, and negative.
  1. Change your self-talk.
    We can’t change cancer survival rate stats. But we can reframe how we look at them.
    For example, instead of imagining losing your loved one, bring it back to the here and now. Notice that she went to the gym today and mentioned how great her workout was. Look at the help she’s getting. Look at her resilience.
  1. Don’t add logs to the fire.
    “Don’t expose yourself to very distressing material. It’s not going to help you or your loved one,” says Brown. Step away from your device. “You go onto Google and what pops up is the worst possible most hideous thing,” she says. Instead, expose yourself to hopeful content. Think about what you can do to help your loved one feel good and be well.

Should I talk to my friend about their cancer survival rate?

Don’t assume your friend or loved one wants to talk about their cancer survival rate. Many people choose to ignore it. Your friend may prefer not to know. Or maybe they’d rather focus on the big picture.

It’s also hard to predict how they will feel about the number. “For some people, a 30 percent chance of dying is great news, but for others, it’s not,” says Brown. Some of us feel better and more in control knowing these numbers. If that’s you, it’s OK. Just don’t foist it on your loved one. “Don’t talk about it unless he brings it up,” Brown suggests.

“My suggestion is to lay off the topic completely—even side questions,” says Lisa Lefebvre, a survivor and the founder of Mend Together. “I once had a relative ask me, ‘What’s your prognosis?’ To me, that was the equivalent of asking point-blank: ‘When are you going to die?’ I knew this was an innocent question from a kind person, but it still made me sick to my stomach to have this topic be addressed in such a cavalier way—In a group setting.”

Brown says many cancer patients she works with feel even more burdened by our concerns than their own. “If you’re freaking out, it freaks them out,” she says. Your loved one is already dealing with heavy emotional and physical burdens. Your concerns may drag him down more.

On the flip side, resist using a cancer survival rate to give false assurance. “There’s nothing worse than false assurance,” says Brown. “Instead, simply listen and affirm.” If they want to know more, it’s OK to share what you’ve learned. But don’t do it in a heavy-handed way. Share everything you just learned from us—like what these stats mean and what they don’t. It may be enlightening.

How to Help Friends with Cancer

Sometimes we want to do something instead of feeling afraid and powerless. You can help your friend live the healthiest life they can. Here’s how.

First, flip through Life Over Cancer by Keith Block, MD. It’s loaded with tips for body and mind to fight disease and optimize health.

Next, try these tips from Thomas Sult, MD, to help them boost their immune system.

  1. Help them rest and digest. Stress triggers a “fight or flight” response, which makes it harder to digest and absorb food and can compromise immune system function, says Sult.
  1. Help balance your friend’s autonomic nervous system by trying these things together:
    • Take a walk every day
    • Do yoga or try tai chi together
    • Learn mindfulness and meditate
  2. Help them find purpose, passion and joy. “Finding purpose, no matter what you’re doing, cultivating passion for it, and deriving joy from it improves the immune system,” says Sult. “This will help balance the autonomic nervous system.”
  1. Encourage your friend to indulge in their passion and joy. Help make it a reality. Take them to their favorite activities. Make plans together. When you see their inner flame ignite, encourage them to do more of what they love.
  1. Foster community. Research suggests people in tight-knit communities who live with multiple generations and have a sense of purpose are healthier, with lower rates of disease. The reason is simple, says Sult: “Humans are troop animals.”
  1. Help your friend find their troop. It may be a support group, a common interest club, a volunteer organization—or quite simply, family. This may be the most powerful thing you can do to improve your friend’s immune system, says Sult.
  1. Suggest your friend read this article. If (and only if) your friend has brought up their survival rate and sounds distressed, direct your friend to our Now what? section. 

“At one point in my cancer journey I had existing tumors that carried risk of metastasizing—and I was facing high risk of numerous new cancers because of a genetic mutation,” Lefebvre remembers. “I worked until 4 AM many nights, trying to build a statistical model that would help predict when I would die. Because I was ruminating, it was exhausting, and caused extra stress. And of course, there was no answer.”

Remember: Your friend’s future isn’t tied to their cancer survival rate. No one can say for sure what will happen. But you can play an active role in helping your friend or loved one by creating a sense of meaning and connection—right now. For tips on what to say (and not say) to a cancer patient, click here.

Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance journalist published in a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and WebMD Magazine.

Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.

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What to Do for a Cancer Patient (and What to Avoid)

what to do for a cancer patient

Not sure what to do for a cancer patient? We’ll be your guide.

You want to help a friend, family member or colleague who’s recovering from, or in between cancer treatments, but you’re not sure how. That’s OK! We have ideas for you.

In fact, now is a great time to step in. 

What many people don’t realize about cancer is that in between and recovering from treatments is often the hardest point. Some of us may have been unwell at the time of diagnosis. But after treatments, most of us are very sick from protocol side effects. Yet this is when friends and family go back to their busy lives, and doctor’s appointments wind down. It’s a very lonely time.

– Lisa Lefebvre, Mend Together founder and 2x cancer “endure-er”

What to do for a cancer patient: start here

No matter how you help, always keep these tips in mind.

  1. Simply touch base. Reach out and say hi. Your texts, emails, cards and visits make a difference. Your friend or loved one will appreciate knowing you’re thinking about him or her. Be clear that you don’t expect a reply. Facing a long list of messages to return can be daunting. Learn more about what to say and not say here.
  1. Don’t wait to be asked. Your friend or loved one may not have time or energy to ask for help. Be proactive. Anticipate their needs—then take care of them.
  1. Be specific. It’s an instinctive offer, but “How can I help?” is one of the least helpful things to say. It’s better to be specific. Instead of saying, “Let me know what I can do for you,” try “I’d like to pick up the kids from school every Friday. Is that OK?”
  1. Give choices. “Offer to cook or bring a meal, look after kids, do laundry, clean or walk the dog,” suggests clinical psychologist Errol J. Philip, PhD. Let your friend choose what works best.
  1. Schedule it. Instead of pitching in here and there, do it regularly. Make it weekly or bi-weekly. Your friend or loved one will appreciate help they can count on.
  1. Visit gently. Your friend may not be up for company, so don’t arrive unannounced. Keep scheduled visits short and simple, especially if they are very sick. A good rule of thumb is two people max, for a half hour or less.
  1. Don’t give unsolicited advice, suggest trying a new doctor or different treatment, or recommend the latest diet plan. Questioning choices or suggesting alternatives erodes hope and confidence. It’s OK to ask if your friend or loved one is searching for resources, but don’t offer ideas unless you’re asked.
  1. Meet your friend where they are. “Some people want to talk, some don’t. Some people want company, some don’t,” says clinical psychologist Tammy A. Schuler, PhD. Pick up on cues. When in doubt, a simple “I’m thinking of you” text is non-intrusive and cheering.
  1. Expect ups and downs. Every day is different. Whether your loved one feels upbeat or feels like exploding, try to roll with what comes your way—and let it be.
  1. Don’t unload on your loved one. Use the “circle of grief” as your guide: A cancer patient is the innermost circle. Moving outward is his or her spouse, then close family and friends, and so on. If you have concerns, go outward. Never put it on someone closer to the innermost circle than you.

Create an Account

Create a free account to help support a cancer patient you know

Now for specific ways you can help

1. Offer practical support

If you’re a go-getter, this is for you. But if you’re not into repetitive tasks or feeling overloaded, try something else.

  • ­Run errands. Drop off dinner. Go grocery shopping. Pick up necessities. Clean out the refrigerator. Offer a ride to therapy or to Target.
  • Monitor meds. Keep track of prescriptions. Pick up refills. Organize medication so he or she doesn’t miss a dose.
  • Help with kids and pets. It takes a village, especially now. Offer to babysit or pick up kids from activities. Take the dog for a walk or an overnight stay. Clean the litter box. Fill the birdfeeder. Water the plants.
  • Organize helpers. Create a calendar to keep track of who, when and how others will pitch in. Online tools like our free Volunteer Calendar make it easy to spread the word and keep everyone on the same page.
  • Keep up the house. Hire a landscaper to mow the grass. Have neighborhood kids shovel the snow. Book a cleaning service.
  • Send a care package. “Care packages are welcomed treats,” says Sonja L. Faulkner, PhD, a psychologist and author who recovered from breast cancer. Try a soft knit cap, aloe vera, body cream, supplements, microwavable heating pads, books, magazines, crossword puzzles or CDs. Mend Together has many unique gift sets tailored to specific types of treatments and symptoms.

2. Gather info

If you’re an info-seeker, this is a great way to help. But be mindful: While some people appreciate this kind of help, others don’t. Ask first.

  • Find resources. Gather information. Find support groups, physical therapists, recovery coaches or oncology massage specialists. But only do this if your friend or loved one asks.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t overload your friend or loved one. Gather information, consolidate it, and share it only when they are ready.
  • Update social networks. Post updates to a patient’s Community Journal on Mend Together.   Offer to sift through emails for important messages. Return phone calls for your patient

3. Be a health booster

Help speed your friend or loved one’s healing by making it easier to eat nutrient-dense foods and start moving again.

  • Get mornings going with a healthy breakfast. Protein shakes, low-sugar green juices, and oatmeal with dried fruits or nuts are high-energy options.
  • Prepare or buy meals. Drop off a veggie-centric dinner that’s heavy on whole grains and beans and low in sugar. Offer to eat it together. Order groceries online—pick healthy choices! —and have them delivered.
  • Encourage movement. Take your friend or loved one to a virtual yoga class to stretch muscles that have been continually contracting from time in bed. Arrange after-dinner strolls or early-morning tai chi. Being active is linked to better physical and emotional health.

4. Take your friend or loved one out

Getting out of the house may give your friend a boost and remind them there’s a world other than cancer. But don’t push — and make sure to practice mask-wearing and social-distancing for safety.

  • Return to old favorites. Your loved one may miss old hobbies and activities. Help them re-engage with virtual book clubs or lunches with friends. Bring your friend to an online religious service they once enjoyed.
  • Inspire. New activities are very healing. Expand your friend’s world by inviting them to participate in virtual events like plays, concerts or suggest an art or yoga class you can take together.
  • Go outdoors. Introduce your loved one to the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Walk her or him through nature aimlessly and slowly, then focus on its beautiful smells, sounds and sights. Nature is a powerful way to both comfort and revitalize.

5. Help with relaxation

Your friend or loved one may be worried about scan results or how to manage everything. You can be the eye of the storm.

  • Lead your friend through relaxation exercises. Meditation and deep breathing are linked to better health. If they are open to it, do deep-breathing exercises together.
  • Locate an EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) psychotherapist. Certain therapies are especially effective for cancer patients—like EMDR, a unique emerging modality that combines talk therapy with body therapy. “I developed delayed PTSD a year after my treatment ended. It turned into a phobia of being touched. I was mortified. I couldn’t control it,” says Lefebvre. Her oncology psychologist suggested EMDR and it was incredibly helpful, she says.
  • Book a myofascial release session. Our fascia is a thin membrane that floats between our skin and our muscles. Like Saran wrap, it can get rumpled and stuck, especially after surgery or long periods in bed. It’s great for cancer patients because it helps them move more naturally. Find an expert in myofascial release or give a gift card.
  • Get artsy. Art reduces stress. Plan an activity like painting, drawing or working with clay. If writing is more their medium, buy a journal or try our free online journal here
  • Bring music. Music can be incredibly soothing, says Sharon Seibel, who recovered from pancreatic cancer. Sharon’s husband, Harvard Medical School faculty member Mache Seibel, MD, gave her a CD of relaxing music while she was in treatment. “I had it playing 24/7 in the hospital and then for a month when I came home. It got me into a different zone,” she says.

6. Offer emotional support

Just because treatment is over doesn’t mean your loved one doesn’t need to talk about a diagnosis or treatments any longer. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in cancer patients is often a delayed symptom. Your support is key.

  • Be a confidant. Be a trusted friend, a shoulder to cry on. Some experts suggest having a confidant may increase cancer patients’ seven-year survival rates by 10 percent.
  • Ask how their spirits are. Try asking, “What was good this week? What was difficult?” Don’t be afraid to talk about your life, too. People experiencing cancer appreciate a break from their worries now and then, and it can feel good to be on the giving side of things for a change.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Your friend or loved one may want company, but fatigue makes it hard to talk or listen, says trauma therapist Julie Barthels, LCSW, who underwent treatment for breast cancer. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Do you just need some quiet time? I’m up for that.”
  • Don’t try to solve your loved one’s problems. Listen before talking. Be a sounding board. People going through cancer don’t want your advice. They just want you to be there.
  • Be normal. “Talk to me like a normal person,” suggests Dana Dinerman, who was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. Talk about your usual topics. Hug your friend. Share a good joke. Include them in projects and plans. If it’s too much, your friend will let you know.
  • Step in. Close friends and caregivers often experience “compassion fatigue.” If you consider yourself “just an acquaintance”, this is a great time to step in and be an active friend.

7. Renew and inspire

Be an unofficial recovery coach. Help your friend or loved one repair, recover and renew after each surgery or set of treatments.

  • Get a birdfeeder. Your friend may be so sick or fatigued that he or she is unable to read a book or watch TV, and the only option is to just stare at the ceiling. Give the gift of a bird feeder so your friend has something to look at. Fill it with birdseed—and keep it filled. “The gift of a birdfeeder can bring beautiful scenery into our days,” says Lefebvre.
  • Redo the bedroom. During treatment, cancer patients are often in bed for months and may associate their bedrooms with sickness. Offer to help update the bedroom. Buy new linens, paint the walls, rearrange the furniture, hang a new piece of wall art. Give your friend a fresh start.
  • Add in fashion. “I had a friend who brought me over a bunch of great hats,” says Sharon Seibel. “I was wearing a baseball hat and she said, ‘How’s your hat collection?’ Next thing I knew, she came over with hats—and I had fun with them!” Here’s our selection.
  • Help your friend get in touch with his or her new reality. Many cancer patients have faced the possibility of what therapists gently call “a foreshortened future.” This can shake their long-held perceptions of who they are and what their purpose is. Introduce your friend or loved one to inspiring books by others with experience in this reckoning. Help them sort through emotions around this. Going to religious services may help—if they are interested.
  • Celebrate milestones. Have a party or bring everyone together for a meal, suggests Mache Seibel, MD. Mark the end of treatment or an anniversary. But check with your loved one first—and let them approve the guest list.

8. Help caregivers

They need a break. The 24/7 togetherness can be tough on everyone.

  • Arrange a weekly night off. Have one friend visit with your friend at home while another takes his or her caregiver out for the evening. Make this a weekly event. Rotate the visitors.
  • Be a friend to a caregiver. Cancer patients often get lots of attention, while the caregiver—who is also experiencing significant life pressures—is relegated to the sidelines. Lend an ear. Be a healthy distraction. Send a Gift. Caregivers may need to express difficult feelings—or take a break from thinking about cancer.

Be the friend remembered for your actions during trying times 

There are many favors that can make a difference. We hope these ideas offer you practical advice on how to support a loved one. For more cancer etiquette read our article What to Say (and Not Say) to a Cancer Patient.

Learn more about our Gift + Cash Registry 

A Registry is a simple way to answer the question: “How can I help?”.  Consider creating a Registry on a patient’s behalf or share this free resource with someone you know experiencing cancer.

With our Registry, you can register for needed products, services or cash funds that speed healing. Loved Ones choose a gift to send or simply contribute funds. Friends and family are also able to create a Registry on a patient’s behalf. Learn more here.

Kara Mayer Robinson has a Master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She is a freelance journalist for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, WebMD and Women’s Health & Fitness. 

Lisa Lefebvre is the Founder of Mend Together. She has experience recovering from 8 cancer-related surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, radiation protocols and hormone suppression therapy.

Posted on

The 8 Dimensions of a Cancer Journey

I used to think once my cancer treatments were finished, I would get my energy back. I’ve since learned that cancer can affect so many sides of life. 

Lisa Lefebvre, Founder of Mend Together and 2x cancer “endure-er”

1. The Emotional Journey

Feelings of fear, anger, guilt, anxiety or depression might become overwhelming.

2. Biochemistry Changes

Treatments can deplete important nutrients that need to be replenished. Our bodies may need extra energy to heal damaged cells. We may need to change unhealthy eating habits.

3. Body Structure Changes

Protocols may change our physical structures in unpleasant ways. We may feel pain from tissue damage or manipulation.

Create an Account

Create a Gift & Donation Registry on Mend Together to receive healing gifts and financial support during a cancer journey

4. Changes to Physical Surroundings

Areas in our home may become subliminally associated with illness. We may need to remove toxic materials from our home and lifestyles.

5. Financial Changes

The cost of cancer treatments can deplete savings. We may lose income from our illness, and alternative therapies can be expensive.

6. Spiritual Changes

Many of us face a crisis of meaning, purpose or identity. Having to face a foreshortened future can be devastating. Our illness can affect our relationship with God.

7. Changes to Passion and Play

We may lose our passion for projects and activities we used to enjoy. We may be unable to participate in hobbies that gave us pleasure. It can be easy to forget about life outside of cancer.

8. Social Changes

Cancer can cause us to isolate ourselves. Changes to our sexuality can challenge romantic relationships. Relationships with family or friends can become strained because of our illness.

For some, recovering from, or between, treatments may be a quick rebound. For others, it isn’t fast or easy. You may not have much energy and your challenge may feel overwhelming. Don’t be discouraged if it takes time. It’s ok. Small steps will add up. And we’ll help you teach others how they can help. Our free Mend Together tools offer an easy way to give and receive support when it’s needed most.

Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.

Posted on

10 Things You Can Do to Heal After Cancer Treatments

Here is our list of 10 important things you can do to heal after or between cancer treatments. If you are a friend or family member, these are areas where you can be supportive:

1. Stay Connected

The most important thing we can do for our health is to stay connected with others. The presence of social support significantly improves our health.

2. Prioritize Sleep

Get 8 hours of sleep each night. Sleep has immense healing powers and helps us recharge physically and mentally.

3. Take High-Quality Vitamins

Take a full spectrum daily multi-vitamin. Most over-the-counter vitamins are of poor nutritional quality.

Create an Account

Create a free page on Mend Together to get emotional, physical, and financial support during cancer treatment 

4. Eat Nutritious Food

Eat real food, not junk food. Mostly plants. Get others to cook vegetable-forward dishes for you.

5. Sit with Your Feelings

Avoid pushing down feelings. We may find it easier to share fears or anxieties with acquaintances or an expert.

6. Drink Plenty of Water

Substitute water for sodas, alcohol, coffee and energy drinks. Give yourself at least 3 weeks to adjust to this and see how you feel.

7. Practice Movement

Exercise is a better predictor of health than how much we weigh. Pick 3 days of each week to commit to an hour of exercise you enjoy. You may find the more offbeat the exercise, the more you may enjoy it (a dance class vs. a gym workout). If we are very ill, we can aim to move 5 minutes for each hour we are awake.

8. Refresh Your Space

If done with treatments, changing up our bedroom environments helps avoid associating a restful room with being ill. Repaint the walls, buy new sheets/sleepwear, or swap out decorative objects.

9. Engage in Uplifting Activities

Sing with others, give compliments and/or volunteer. These activities are highly correlated with happiness.

10. Own Your Journey

There is such a thing as “post-traumatic growth” – about 25% of people experience this after cancer. For many, it means learning to live life for oneself instead of others all the time.

This is the time to be generous with ourselves and drop our standards. We don’t have to be perfect at anything right now.

Our new, free Gift + Cash Registry helps bring healing gifts and funds to the rescue. Our Community Journal keeps everyone updated at the same time. And our Volunteer Calendar helps coordinate offers of help (coming soon!).