Visiting Those In The Hospital

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 bobriter@gmail.com.

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.

People with cancer are sometimes hospitalized and their friends often want to visit to offer support and encouragement. Understanding some general guidelines will help make the visit a positive experience for everyone:

  • Keep the visits brief. People in the hospital are generally quite ill and have limited energy. If you stay long, it puts a burden on them to keep you entertained. Visits of 10 to 15 minutes are often best.
  • Be sure that the patient wants visitors. Call ahead to see if visiting is a good idea and, if so, what time of day is preferred.
  • If a visit isn’t possible, send a card. And bring a card with you if you do visit.
  • Patients often put those cards on the wall and feel comforted by them.
  • Don’t visit if you’re sick. The last thing a hospitalized patient needs is your germs.
  • Wash your hands before entering the room, even if you’re healthy. There are sinks and alcohol-based hand cleansers throughout the hospital. Use them.
  • Don’t wear strong fragrances. Some ill patients are acutely sensitive to scents.
  • And please don’t smoke before visiting – the smell lingers on your clothes.
  • If doctors or other health professionals enter the room, excuse yourself and go into the hallway unless the patient specifically asks that you stay.
  • If family members are present, realize that the patient needs private time with them. Give your regards, but don’t linger in the room.
  • Don’t sit on the patient’s bed unless you are asked to do so. Patients are often physically uncomfortable and they don’t want to be jostled or cramped.
  • Don’t hug the patient unless it’s clear that they want that hug. If you’ve just had surgery, a hug is painful.
  • Don’t whine about things in your life. No one wants to hear, “I’m sorry that you have lung cancer, Joe, but I just got a parking ticket and I’m really steamed.”
  • Don’t pry into the patient’s health. If they want to share with you, they’ll share with you. It’s fine to ask how they’re feeling, but leave it at that.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Sometimes it’s the best support you can provide.


As is so often the case, what’s in your heart is more important than the words you say. When people are seriously ill, they sense kindness and support around them. Your visits, cards, prayers, and positive thoughts do make a difference.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal. 

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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