Woman in a black jacket bringing a mature woman groceries.
Everyday Support

“How Can I Help?” 5 Ways to Turn Offers of Assistance Into Real Support

“What can I do?”

“Let me know how I can help!”

“If you need anything, just ask.”

Once you share your cancer diagnosis with friends and family, you’ll probably be inundated with offers of help. But turning vague offers of assistance into tangible support can be harder than it seems. What should you ask people to do? How can people contribute from far away? And most importantly, how do you get comfortable with accepting help?

Here are 5 ways you can turn offers of help into concrete actions:

1. Be Open to Receiving

Taking people up on their offers of help can feel awkward, pushy, and embarrassing. Maybe hardest of all, it forces you to acknowledge that you need help. That can be difficult in the best of times, but it’s particularly difficult after a diagnosis.

“Cancer changes your life, your body, what you knew about yourself,” says Annamarya Scaccia, Iris Peer Mentor, and survivor of a rare stage 1 kidney cancer. “You want to be in control, and having to be vulnerable and ask for help can be difficult.”

She adds, “People with cancer often feel that asking for help means being a burden. But the people in your circle want to see you recover, and recover well.” Not accepting help can prolong your recovery, which not only takes a toll on you but also on the people who care about you.

Annamarya suggests having a phrase to use when you find yourself slipping into habits like waiving away offers of help. “Remind yourself: ‘They care for you. They want to help you. You are not a burden.’”

People really do want to help you. In fact, studies show that human beings find meaning in opportunities to help others—so don’t be reluctant to let family, friends, and acquaintances lend a hand.

2. Make a Plan

Annamarya stresses the importance of having a plan. Take inventory of the tasks you need help with, from meal prep for your family to putting up holiday decorations. If possible, put your list together before you start chemo or have surgery so help is at hand when you need it most. Organizing specific, timely tasks, like rides to and from the hospital, during treatment cycles helps reduce stress so you can focus on recovery.

In addition, you can keep a running list of useful but non-urgent tasks, such as household chores or yard work, to refer to when someone asks how they can help.

3. Delegate Tasks

If someone expresses a desire to help, refer to your list and assign a specific task, based on their proximity, availability, and your own comfort level. Friends and family members who live nearby can help with daily life activities, from doing laundry to picking your kids up from school. People who are farther away can organize meal trains or fundraisers, or simply provide a sympathetic ear.

4. Use Technology

From group texts to Facebook chats, technology can hook you up with the help you need. Creating (or asking someone to create for you) a way for you and your supporters to communicate makes it easy to let people know how they can help on a day-to-day basis. This can include a blog or CaringBridge that lets you inform people of updates and needs without having to explain your situation over and over again.

And if you need support from someone who’s been there, Iris makes it easy to set up a chat with a peer mentor.

5. Set Boundaries

Annamarya stresses the importance of drawing boundaries when necessary. “Your cancer journey is about you, not them. If they’re not making life easier, your needs come first,” she advises. Don’t feel obligated to accept help, however well-intentioned, from people you aren’t comfortable with. This is especially true for intimate tasks like helping you bathe.

Along the same lines, it’s okay to make specific requests, whether they’re about special dietary needs or the way you like your laundry folded. It’s helpful to explain exactly why you want or need something done in a particular way, especially in situations that could impact your physical or emotional health.

It’s also fine to re-assign tasks if someone doesn’t seem well-suited for the responsibilities you gave them. And if delegating stresses you out, you can assign someone the task of assigning tasks!

Lean into Your Team

The next time someone asks if you need anything or how they can help, speak up and tell them exactly what they can do. You’ll make your own life a little easier while also giving them the chance to take action on your behalf.

“We don’t exist in this world alone,” says Annamarya. “It’s okay to ask for support and be supported.”

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.