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Suggestions for a Patient’s Family and Friends

Family members and friends often don’t know what they can do when someone they care about is diagnosed with an illness or is undergoing treatment. This list of suggestions was originally developed by a patient of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Stay in touch

Put aside your discomfort at seeing someone who is facing a frightening diagnosis or who is ill. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know what to say” and to share sad feelings. Although your loved one is facing a health challenge, he or she is the same person with the same interests. Your presence and ongoing support are important to the patient and family.

  • Telephone calls are helpful in making patients feel they are still in the loop of family, friends, work, school, and place of worship.
  • Visits are usually welcome, although you may want to call first to make sure the patient has the energy to visit.
  • If you know people who have survived the illness that the person has, tell their stories. In some situations, it may be helpful to introduce your friends.
  • Be willing to listen to “negative” thoughts or bad news. You do not need to be cheerful or have all the answers. Sometimes just being there and listening is more important than anything that you can say.
  • Cards and letters are welcome. It’s OK to send funny greeting cards. One patient commented, “I knew only too well that I was ill — I wanted to smile.”

Lend a helping hand

Even though friends often say, “Call if you need anything,” people are often hesitant to ask for assistance. It is sometimes helpful to offer specific types of help. Being a reliable person who is just able to come and help out whenever necessary can make a difference. Depending on the situation, it may be helpful to coordinate a volunteer team to help out with specific caregiving tasks.

Some specific forms of help that are often appreciated include:

  • Rides to and from the doctor’s office or treatment center
  • Running errands such as grocery shopping and picking up health care items
  • Help with meal preparation
  • Help with house cleaning or outside work
  • Assistance in identifying community resources
  • Serving as a sitter or helping with child care or elder care
  • Pet care (people who are at risk for infection are not allowed to clean up after pets)
  • Holiday preparations

If someone is going to be in the hospital, some other ways you may be able to help include the following:

  • Picking up mail and newspapers
  • Pet and/or plant care
  • Cutting the grass or shoveling snow so that the person’s home will have a safe and lived-in appearance

Gift ideas

Families and friends are often unsure of what types of gifts to give their loved ones. Every situation is different, but the following suggestions may start you thinking.


  • New robe, pajamas that button down the front (to allow for chest catheters), slippers, warm socks to sleep in, sweat suits, or flannel pants with loose sweatshirts
  • If there is hair loss, any kind of soft hat (for instance, a baseball hat with autographs) or scarf. Patients often comment, “You wouldn’t believe how cold it gets without hair!”
  • Bed jacket (short jacket to wear while reading in bed)

Items to help pass time

  • Current photo album or video from work, school, or place of worship
  • Magazines, catalogues, funny calendars
  • Books with lots of pictures or cartoons or short stories may be good choices for days when it is hard to concentrate. Think about the person’s interests. People enjoy books relating to their hobbies. For example, a pet lover might enjoy cat and dog books.
  • HBO, cable TV, or something similar for a month
  • Notebook or journal with a fancy pen — take it to work, school, or your place of worship and have people write things in it
  • Stationery for thank-you notes and letters
  • Arts and crafts materials
  • Something decorative or a framed print of something they like for the hospital room
  • Stuffed animals — there is a variety to fit different personalities
  • Children’s toys — these can be fun for adults too. The patient might enjoy bubbles, crayons, Silly Putty, or Play-Doh.

Comfort items

  • Warm blanket (a design or favorite sports team)
  • Recliner-type pillows for sitting up in bed
  • Puffy pillow with a pretty pillowcase (make sure it is hypoallergenic)
  • Big, thick, fluffy towel or beach towel (wash it before you give it)
  • Bed tray

Cost cutters

  • Phone card
  • Newspaper or magazine subscription
  • Gas cards
  • Parking coupons for the hospital/treatment facility

Toiletry items

  • Unscented soaps or lotions (some smells are intolerable during chemo)
  • Soft tooth brush

Food items

  • Always check for special dietary restrictions. Everyone is different — ask the person what
    he or she is hungry for or would like.

People who don’t have energy to prepare their own meals may enjoy

  • Single-serving cans of fruit
  • Gift certificates for restaurants that have carryout menus

Patients who have sore mouths from their treatment may enjoy

  • Ice cream, Italian ices, Kool-Aid, and Popsicles
  • Hard candy with no fillings, lollipops

Special situations

Some patients may be at high risk for infection because of their treatment. They may not be allowed to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, or food from delicatessens or fast-food restaurants. Some may not be allowed to have fresh flowers.

Take care of caregivers

Don’t forget the family or caregivers who may be trying to juggle their regular responsibilities along with providing care. Ways that you may be able to help include:

  • Scheduling a time to stay with the patient while the caregiver rests or takes care of his or her own needs
  • Offering help with transportation or their errands
  • Providing gas cards to travel to the hospital or to doctors’ offices
  • Providing phone cards
  • Coordinating a meal (either cooking something or providing a gift certificate so they can get takeout on a day when they really need it)
  • Caregivers who are staying with the patient may need help with their own home.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center would like to acknowledge the efforts of Marie A. Viola, a cancer survivor from Greenville, Pa., who initiated this project.​​

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Medical information made available on is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

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