Although you may not have cancer yourself, chances are you know someone who does. Talking with a friend, a family member, or a co-worker who has recently been diagnosed with the disease can be difficult. You may find yourself wondering, What can I do to help? Here, cancer patients and survivors share their truthful, practical ideas on how you can lend a hand.

  1. Rethink food. Although bringing meals to cancer patients seems caring, it may be misguided. "With the chemo, my husband was too sick to eat anything," says one friend. "And because our daughter is a vegetarian, many of those meals just went to waste." A better option: Give grocery or restaurant gift certificates, enabling families to choose the foods they want while relieving financial burden.
  2. Offer miles. Frequent-flier miles piling up? Offer them to someone who needs to visit a specialist in another state; it's especially helpful when last-minute treatment options arise.
  3. Remember the kids. Sometimes it's tough for parents with cancer to muster the energy for traditional mom and dad functions. Find out the dates of your friends' children's birthdays and offer to host a party, from invitations to cleanup. Come over at holiday time with all the fixings for baking cookies, carving pumpkins, or creating valentines.
  4. Accept giving. While my husband and I were visiting friends who were suffering with cancer, they hatched an elaborate surprise plan to pay the restaurant tab when we all celebrated my husband's birthday. "We've received so much for so long, it's nice to be the ones doing the giving for once," says my friend. Just say thanks.
  5. Assist with cash. According to my friends who have had cancer, it's not cold and crass to send money to help with expenses, especially if you live far away and have no way to help up close. Money means freedom to make choices, exactly what most cancer patients find they suddenly lack.
  6. Pray. Cancer patients say that simply knowing people are praying—whether the patient is religious or nonreligious—boosts morale and hope. "Please keep praying," says one friend. "It really helps. I don't know how, but it does."

—Elisa Bosley