It could be your spouse, sister, mother, daughter or best friend, it doesn't matter, if you love them, it hurts.
When my sister was told she had cancer, I immediately fell to pieces. I was so shaken I had to leave the room. Total meltdown! I was in the hallway outside of her hospital room sobbing when a beautiful nurse walked over to me. She grabbed me firmly by the shoulders and gave me a shake. She looked me straight in the eyes and said. "Girl, you have got to get it together for your sister". Wow! If she only knew the impact her words had on me. At that moment, I pulled myself together and went back into the room. My big sister was always there for me, and now it was my turn to be there for her.
So, lesson number one is, it's not about you. As horrible as you feel, it will never compare to what she's feeling. Do whatever you can, without hesitation to be there for her. Don't wait for her to ask because she probably won't. Take the initiative to find out what her individual needs are at that moment. Also, keep in mind her needs will change as she progresses through treatment.
At first, she might just need a shoulder to cry on, so let her cry. Or she may need you to help her make sense of all the paperwork she's received. Gift her with an organizer and a journal. It's so much easier to handle a situation when you're prepared. Whenever possible, take her to appointments and be her second set of ears, ask questions and take notes.
Bring her a home-cooked meal. If she has a family to feed bring enough for all of them. Cooking is not a priority for her now, but keeping her family together is. If you can help her manage her daily tasks she will be able to focus more on getting well. If she has children, offer to watch them while she's in treatment or if she's not feeling well.
You could personalize a gift basket for her. If she's going to lose her hair get her a pretty hat or scarf and some nice lotions that are chemo/radiation friendly. You can also add items to help pass the time during chemo, for example, magazines, puzzles, books, music...the list goes on. Or, gift her with something to help her feel more comfortable, maybe a blanket or a fuzzy pair of socks. If it's not in your budget to purchase something you could offer to drive her to treatment and if time permits, sit with her while she's receiving it.
If she is in financial distress check if there are any hospital-based or government programs who can help. If you're financially comfortable, perhaps you could help her by purchasing an item she may need, for example, a wig or maybe a drug that she's not covered for. Or, start a fundraiser. Don't ask, just do it. She is proud and will not easily accept a "handout".
Empathy is okay, but please know your loved one does not want sympathy. Treat her like you always have but try to be a little more intuitive of her needs.
The reason I wrote Healing Pretty is I realized so many of my clients missed out on things they could have benefitted from. They have so much thrown at them, so fast, it's nearly impossible for them to think of everything. Your role as a family member or friend is more important than you know. I encourage you to read the book yourself. It will help you understand the challenges she is faced with and you'll be better equipped to help.
If you are a cancer warrior, looking back, are there things you wished someone would have offered you while you were in treatment?
What was the most helpful or thoughtful thing someone did for you during treatment?
If someone you love had cancer, what did you do to help?