Supporting a family who is facing illness

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008.  Since then I have had 4 major surgeries and chemotherapy.  I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and a lot of times I needed help, whether I liked it or not. helping hands

It was hard to be ill and concede I couldn’t take care of my family.  It was really hard.  Even though I was tired, weak, nauseous and in pain I still wanted to do it all.  But I couldn’t.

Have you ever had someone you care about face a serious illness?  A friend, a neighbour, or a colleague?  How did you respond?  Did you feel comfortable offering help?  Did you know what would be helpful?  Knowing what to do is not always easy.

We were very fortunate to have my parents who dropped everything and came to help whenever needed.  This along with the help from friends, neighbours and colleagues allowed me to focus on spending time with my children and taking time to rest and heal.

A steady stream of support during surgical recovery and chemo treatment was so important.  My husband often told people we were in a marathon, not a sprint.  And it is so true.  People are called to action at the time of diagnosis, but I was at my lowest and weakest 8 months later when treatment was over.  That was when I needed the most support.

Loved ones who lived far away struggled with not being able to provide the practical support like meals, laundry etc.  But there are lots of ways people near and far can support a family coping with illness.

Here are some ideas of what my family found helpful.

Sharing Information

I found telling people I had cancer overwhelming and exhausting.  Emotionally I just couldn’t do it repeatedly.  I shared the news with my closest family and friends personally and then asked if they could tell others.  I gave them the specifics of what was happening and requested no phone calls right now, but emails and notes were welcome.  What a wonderful relief it was to delegate that task.   And imagine how touched I was when emails of support came pouring in from all my friends, family and colleagues.


There is what seems like a million decisions to make and information to absorb at the time of diagnosis.  I found delegating research very helpful.  Eg:  Have someone research your Diagnosis, Chemo Drugs, Surgical Options or Alternative Therapies etc.  Suggest they send only the most pertinent web links and write a summary of what they found.  This is a great job for someone who lives far away.


My colleagues at work coordinated a meal schedule.  Once a week a couple of meals that were kid friendly, easy to freeze and delicious were delivered to my home.  Amazing!  This gave my mom a welcome night or two off cooking.   I so appreciated the coordinated effort.  It meant I didn’t have to cope with multiple people dropping by all the time or become overwhelmed with 10 meals being dropped off all at once.  We were so grateful.  We were also often treated by neighbours and friends to meals and packages of baking.  My sweet toothed girls loved this and still miss the days the house was full of goodies!

Groceries, Laundry, Lawn Care, Shoveling etc

I was lucky enough to have my parents do much of this.  My advice: if you are able to do some of these chores for a family, “just do it”!  Cut the grass or shovel the driveway when you are out doing your own or ask “when can I shop for your groceries?”  If you are stopping by for a visit, throw in a load of laundry while there, or peel some potatoes for dinner.  Make your offers of help action oriented instead of putting the pressure on the family to come up with something. We often felt overwhelmed by all the offers of “what can I do?”

Helping with the Children

It was important to me for my children to keep as normal a routine as possible and to have fun.  My mom and my neighbours took my girls to and from their bus stop just like I would have.  They went to their regular activities with some gracious car pooling help.  They were invited out for play dates, park visits and movies with their friends.  It made me really happy to see them getting out and having fun with their friends.

While I got a lot of attention when I was ill the kids were delighted when a gift basket arrived one day just for them.  Another gift basket included things for me and the kids with quiet activities we could do together like a Sudoko puzzle book, a family movie, a family game.  These were great and really uplifted the kids’ spirits!Family playing board game

Medical Appointments

Oh my, nothing prepares you for the multitude of medical appointments you suddenly have deposited into your calendar as the person who is ill.  It can be overwhelming.

Offer to drive or accompany your friend to their appointments if you can.  Give them a diary to write down their questions.  If you come to the appointment offer to take notes in the diary of what is said.   Offer to help them create a binder to keep track of all the appointments, test results, research etc.

Listen and Laugh

I so appreciated friends coming by just to be with me.  If it was a good day we could talk, if not we could just watch a TV show or movie.  Sometimes I needed to talk about my feelings but mostly I really enjoyed hearing about what was going on in their lives.  It was a relief not having the focus on me and my family and how we were coping.  I enjoyed the chatter and laughs.  Humour was so important to me.  A few friends kept my email box filled with jokes and funny videos.  Seeing the funny side of life went a long way.

Stay in Touch

I loved receiving emails and cards.  I could read my emails when I felt well and I often reread them over and over to feel the love and support channeling my way.  I didn’t try to answer each one.  I instead started writing regular updates and sending out a group email to my friends and family.  It was the easiest way to stay in touch for me and it also meant everyone was getting the same updated information.  Stay in touch frequently even after treatment is over.  Remember it is a marathon, not a sprint.

Do you have ideas of how to help a family in need of support?  Did you once need support?  What did you find most helpful.  Share your ideas with us.

Read Karen’s Bio, and her other related post, “How am I ever going to tell my children I have cancer?”

For more tips and hints about supporting a family, or to share your experience, there are many ways you can talk to one of us directly:

  • Leave us a comment below – we’d love your feedback
  • Talk to us on Twitter: @haltonparents
  • Email us at
  • Call the HaltonParents line for parenting information or to speak directly to a Public Health Nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) Simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.

About Karen Hay, RN

Parenting and supporting families to be as healthy as possible is my passion. I love opportunities to connect with Halton families on social media and look forward to chatting with you online. Halton Region is where my family lives and plays.
This entry was posted in Babies, Children & Tweens, Parenting, Parenting Your Baby, Parenting Your Child/Tween, Parenting Your Teen, Parenting Your Toddler & Preschooler, Pregnancy, Teens, Toddlers & Preschoolers and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Supporting a family who is facing illness

  1. Selena Hucal says:

    Karen, thank you for sharing your advice on how to help a loved one with an illness. As a friend, knowing HOW to be of help is such a concern. This can be unknown territory for many of us. As well, you shared such wonderful advice on how to be a great patient. You did a remarkable job at keeping your friends and family informed and comforted while we journeyed with you. Sharing what your needs are and what you are able and ready to recieve for help makes it so much easier for your supporters to be there when you need them. Together we made it through!

    • Karen Hay says:

      Thanks Selena for sharing your thoughts and sentiments. You touched on something very important in your comment, everyone enters illness at different levels of comfort for receiving support. Some people are very private about sharing their illness, some are very public and many like me are somewhere in the middle. It is something to consider and respect when reaching out to help a family. Thanks for your insight and of course your love and support.

      Karen on behalf of HaltonParents

  2. Karen, thank you for sharing your experiences, advice and tips on how help someone dealing with a cancer diagnosis. It sounds as though you had a great support team behind you!! I really appreciated you sharing the link via twitter to this blog.

    As I mentioned in the reply, the Canadian Cancer Society can also offer emotional and practical support for people dealing with cancer (including caregivers) in our community.

    Our services include things like our toll free Cancer Information Service where people can call to talk to a trained specialist about cancer, treatments, side effects, etc. Our free peer support program offers the opportunity to speak with a someone who has gone through a similar experience.

    We also offer a Transportation Program for those that may not be able to get to and from their treatments. Patients registered with the Canadian Cancer Society Transportation Program will be picked up and taken to their appointment by a volunteer driver. This is a shared-ride program that not only provides transportation but offers a friendly, supportive environment along the way.

    More information about our programs and services can be found online at

    • Karen Hay says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this information on our blog. It is truly an amazing service that you provide. You are right, I was lucky to have an amazing support team, and as a Halton community we are so fortunate to have the Canadian Cancer Society as a support service. On the day I was diagnosed we went straight to your office. What an amazing support my husband and I received that shocking day. You can read about that day on an older blog post I wrote “How am I ever going to tell my children I have cancer?” Your website is also a wonderful source of easy to read information, we visited it frequently. Thanks for providing such a vital service in Halton Region and across Canada.

      Karen on behalf of HaltonParents

  3. I was trying to pick my favourite suggestion from your list, but they are all so essential! Great post 🙂 ~Catherine

    • Karen Hay says:

      Thank you Catherine for your lovely comment! I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog. As a “survivor”, I am often asked by friends and family who know someone facing cancer “How can I help them”. This was the inspiration for the blog. It was what worked for my family and hopefully many others. 🙂

  4. Pingback: How not to say the wrong thing | HaltonParents

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