Your friend has cancer? How to help

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rabbit sxc sxc It may sound like a childish gift for a 23-year-old but we thought giving her a rabbit to care for - shed always wanted one - would take her mind off being ill.

London - What can I do? It’s the question asked by anyone with a loved one suffering from cancer. Experts agree thoughtful gestures and practical help from friends and family are of huge benefit to the wellbeing of a patient - almost as essential as conventional medical treatment. Here, are four surprising ways that friends and family have found to help.

WE BOUGHT OUR FRIEND A JUICER

Psychotherapist Adela Campbell, 40, lives in Holland Park, West London, close to her friend Jessica Jones, 50, a writer diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2009.

Adela says: I’d never had anyone close to me diagnosed with cancer so it was a terrible shock when Jessica told me, the day she found out.

I desperately wanted to make everything better. With Jess’s mother in Australia and her sister in Russia, we - her close friends - were her family. We took her to appointments, visited her in hospital, lent her money and helped with chores.

I rang Macmillan for guidance on benefits and grants - being self-employed, how was Jess supposed to pay the bills?

After surgery to remove a large area of her left breast and reconstruct it using muscle from her back, Jess had chemo and radiotherapy. She was anxious to eat a healthy diet, but cancer treatment makes patients feel so ill, depleting their taste buds and appetite when their bodies need nourishing most.

I bought her a juicer as a way to whizz up fruit and vegetables into nutritional drinks and smoothies.

Jessica was thrilled and even when she felt miserable, sick and couldn’t tackle food, she got nourishment by sipping home-made juice. Thankfully she’s now clear of cancer but she still uses her juicer all the time.

Jessica says: Adela and my friends were astonishing. Aside from the practical support, one friend gave me singing lessons as a wonderful distraction, and the juicer from Adela was a gem. Beetroot, lime and strawberry was my favourite concoction. But the greatest gift was the companionship of my friends - when you have cancer, having people sit with you while you have chemo or even just watch TV helps make you feel safe.

John Newlands, of Macmillan Cancer Support, says: The most common call to us is from people desperate to know how they can prepare food that will be nutritious and which the patient can enjoy. Cancer and treatment can destroy appetites and alter taste buds.

A juicer is a wonderful idea and a blender for making soups would be equally good.

I GOT MY DAUGHTER A PET RABBIT

Jane Patmore, 50, lives in Musselburgh, Scotland, with husband Derek, a civil servant. They have two daughters - Emma, 19, a student, and Stephanie, 23, who works for a bank. Stephanie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last October.

Jane says: Shock and terror were the emotions I felt when Stephanie told me the awful news. She had two lots of surgery and when she came home a week after the second operation in December, we surprised her with an adorable rabbit called Tilly.

It may sound like a childish gift for a 23-year-old but we thought giving her a rabbit to care for - she’d always wanted one - would take her mind off being ill.

I knew how difficult she’d find it being on her own all day with her boyfriend Danny, 27, back at the bank where he works and Derek and me at work, too. Tilly loves to be stroked and has proved the most fantastic tonic. Thankfully, Steph is now recovering well.

Stephanie says: It might seem an odd gift but it gave me something else to think and talk about other than how I was feeling, even if it was only that Tilly had eaten from my hand that day.

It took the attention off me and cancer, which was what I needed.

John Newlands says: What an excellent way of making Stephanie still feel like an independent person, rather than just a cancer patient.

When you have cancer, you need to feel you’re still you - a mom, daughter, wife, husband or son. There’s a fine balance between helping a patient and taking away their role.

WE PLANNED POST-CHEMO DAYS OUT

Rhona Tridgell, 54, owns a recruitment consultancy and lives in Southgate, North London. Her sister Kathryn Barber, 49, a teaching assistant, was diagnosed with breast cancer last June.

Rhona says: Kathryn had a mastectomy in July and started a six-dose course of chemotherapy in August, each one three weeks apart. I took a step back initially so that she and her husband Ian, 55, a civil servant, and son James, 15, could come to terms with what was happening.

Once chemo was under way, Kath said she felt brighter towards the end of each three-week cycle. I live nearby so I’d encourage her to come with me for gentle walks and bike rides to get her in the fresh air. I also planned treats as a boost before the next rotten treatment, which would leave her feeling sick for a day or two. We went to the cinema and to restaurants, and enjoyed a family weekend away in Kent.

Kathryn says: The things Rhona encouraged me to do boosted my confidence when I was feeling pretty dreadful from chemo. Meanwhile my other sister Helen stocked my freezer with food so I could put a meal on the table with little effort. It was important for me to feel that I was still being a wife and mother.

John Newlands says: Being active is important during intensive treatment. A short walk - even to the end of the garden - is a great way to get the muscles moving and the blood flowing, which is physically and psychologically therapeutic.

And having things to look forward to is vital - as simple as a friend calling in for a chat or a trip away.

WE MADE AN ALBUM OF LOVE

Helen Bulbeck, 49, is founder of brainstrust.org.uk and lives on the Isle of Wight with husband Peter. Helen’s daughter Meg, 26, was diagnosed with a brain tumour aged 19. She is now in remission.

Helen says: When the consultant said Meg had a brain tumour, I was filled with dread. My father died of kidney cancer in 1994 so I knew what could be in store. Meg had to fly to the US in June 2007 for specialist neurosurgery to remove the tumour.

Her boyfriend Josh - now her husband - gave two blank pages from an album to each of her friends and family to fill with whatever they wanted. We created a book of poems, photos, stories and letters. We took it with us - Peter, Josh and I went to America too. It kept Meg going to know everyone cared so much. It made us laugh and cry - and still does.

Meg says: When I was diagnosed, it was terrifying. Without the album I would have felt lonely and much more downbeat.

John Newlands says: Looking at photos and messages is a tangible way of showing support, even if you’re not able to offer practical help. - Daily Mail

* macmillan.org.uk

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