Helping From A Distance

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

I once received a letter from a man serving time in prison asking how he could help his mother who was ill with cancer.

As I wrote back to offer suggestions, I recall thinking that this was an extreme example of long-distance care giving. He literally couldn’t visit his mother and his ability to communicate with her was limited.

There are countless other situations in which someone wants to help a loved one with cancer, but geography makes it impossible to pop over with a bowl of soup and a hug.

But there are ways to help and support, even if you can’t be there in person:

  • Send notes of support. Let them know that you’re sending positive thoughts.
  • Realize that people with cancer often receive lots of cards when they are first diagnosed. The cards that they receive weeks and months later – when they’re tired of cancer and its treatment – are especially treasured.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you don’t receive a response. People in the middle of treatment often need to conserve their energy. I’ve known people to respond seemingly out of the blue years later to say how much those cards meant.
  • Educate yourself about their cancer. Lung cancer is very different than breast cancer. Acquiring a basic knowledge will help you understand what they’re going through and facilitate communication.
  • Call, even if it feels awkward at first. It’s OK to say simply, “I’m sorry you have cancer.” People don’t usually remember what you said, but they’ll remember that you called. And don’t worry about waking someone up or disturbing them. They have an answering machine.
  • Small gifts, unrelated to illness, are always welcome.
  • Reach out to the primary care giver. They may need an outlet. Or simply a recognition of their difficult role.
  • I’ve had friends take part in cancer walks and raise money in my honor. I love when that happens.
  • If writing or calling is difficult, you can always send good and positive thoughts. As one friend with cancer told me, “Prayers, good vibes, thinking of me – I’ll take it in any form.”

More than anything, the person with cancer will appreciate the sense of staying connected with you and staying connected with his or her “normal” life. Cancer tends to throw everything into upheaval. Distant friends and family can help people with cancer maintain their sense of who they were before cancer and, hopefully, the life to which they will return when treatment ends.

Reprinted with permission from the Ithaca Journal. 

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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