How to Treat a Person Treated by Illness

Posted on: September 13th, 2010 by

As I write this, a very good friend is battling Leukemia. We communicate regularly, and I have visited her between her hospital visits at a time when she was feeling pretty decent. I call her occasionally when she’s living at the hospital for five weeks at a time getting chemotherapy and every other therapy imaginable.

I cannot bear the possibility of losing her — but I take great comfort that her doctors are optimistic about her prognosis. I think about her every day.

Flashback to about six years ago. I lost a great friend to breast cancer. I took her to most of her chemo treatments and did whatever I could to help her. About two weeks before she died, we told each other “I love you.” But during her three-year battle, on the rare days when I wasn’t taking her to treatment, I hardly called her. When I did call, I told her she did not have to call me back.

And she hardly called me back, unless she needed me to help her. And I was OK with that because as a former cancer patient, I knew exactly what someone ill needed from others. I called her before I planned to visit her in the hospital, knowing that she might not be receptive to visitors on a particular day.

That being said, if you have a friend, relative, or acquaintance who has a serious illness, here are a few do’s and don’ts that would really help the patient.

Don’t reject that person. As difficult as it is to see a loved one suffering, you must have the courage to support him or her. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, most of my friends rallied around me, but there were a couple who rejected me and were downright cold to me. I remember feeling crushed in spirit and felt that the rejection was worse than the cancer itself.

Don’t call constantly. The afflicted person is often flooded with phone calls upon diagnosis and during treatment. Picking up the phone can sap the energy of anyone who is going through an illness. When I was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation at the same time, the physical act of picking up the phone seemed like an Olympic weight-lifting event.

Do call occasionally or send a card. While too many phone calls are intrusive, you do need to call occasionally or send a card just to let the ill person know you are still thinking of him or her. I remember all the cards I got when I was sick, and it meant the world to me to know I meant the world to many people. If you do call and are put into voicemail, leave a message like, “I just called to see how you are doing. You do not need to call me back, but you can if you are able to. I just am checking in.” This gives the afflicted person the option of not calling you back and not feeling guilty about it.

Do call the ill person to see if it’s OK to visit him or her at the hospital or at home. This is really important. After my double mastectomy with reconstruction, I felt too sick to want visitors, and I didn’t want people to see me looking so sick and vulnerable. I preferred occasional phone calls.

Don’t visit if you are ill, even slightly ill. Sick people cannot afford to be exposed to any more potential threats to their immune system. That’s why I hardly have visited my Leukemia-afflicted friend in the hospital: I was either sick or under the weather, or my child was ill, and that made me a potential carrier of her germs.

Don’t take children to the hospital if the patient’s immune system is compromised. Let’s face it: Children are germ buckets. Unless there’s a good reason for doing so, visit the afflicted person without bringing children.

Do bring a book or something to occupy your time if you are visiting the patient.  I spent hours reading by the bedside of my dying friend years ago, while she slept. When she woke up and saw me, she felt happy and then went back to sleep. You are supposed to be there for the patient and his/her needs.

Do tell the person you love him or her. Enough said.

These do’s and don’ts should help you best help the person you care about. It can hurt not to see a loved one in the hospital or not to get a call from him or her, but the truth is that being a good friend/relative involves doing what is best for the patient.

Do you recommend any do’s or don’ts regarding a loved one afflicted by an illness? Please leave a comment — your advice is appreciated. 

This is an exerpt from my upcoming book, Calling the Shots: Coaching Yourself Through the Medical System. I am a professional, published writer, whose particular interest lies in self-advocacy and self-empowerment in the medical arena. I have published an essay on my breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing.  To subscribe to my blog, please click the orange Subscribe button on the left side of the posting. I can be contacted at


This blog posting is an excerpt from my book in progress, Calling the Shots: Coaching Yourself Through the Medical System. Stay in loop for when it comes out. Subscribe to the blog in upper righthand corner.

2 Responses to How to Treat a Person Treated by Illness

  1. had this to say about that:

    These suggestions should really help people with figuring out what to do. I am recently diagnosed and finding it is very hard for some people to know just what to do. I am excited to discover your blog and will be back. Keep up all your good work! nancy

  2. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Hi Nancy,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and your comment. It is very difficult for people to know how to speak with those diagnosed and being treated for cancer.

    I look forward to more of your insights. My blog is all about patient empowerment, so you may find it useful when dealing with your doctors and medical treatments.

    Take care of yourself,


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