How to help family member with terminal illness?

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I just received word that one of my cousins (she is only 61 years old) on my dad's side of the family, (NOT my cousin who has dementia that I care for) has cancer and LESS than 6 months to live. It's really shocked and saddened the family. She lives about an hour's drive from me and I'm just not sure what to do. I don't know how she is handling it, so I don't want to just call or show up. I imagine she is in shock and trying to process this. And what kind of card do you send? Should I take food? Her husband has taken off work to care for her at home. I don't think she was even sick when she got this news suddenly last week. I'm not sure if she will undergo chemo. The doctor said she had only 6 months, even with chemo.

I'm just not sure what you do in cases like this. I've heard the worst thing to do is to do nothing. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Answers 1 to 6 of 6
How sad! They must be in shock!

I would send a card, or email saying thinking of you. If you want to talk, let me know so I can call. Offer to do something concrete, like offering to send or bring some casseroles that can be frozen.
Sunny, I'm so sorry. Barb is right - a card (so they don't have to talk if they don't want to or discuss this over-and-over-and-over-and...) with an offer to be there if they want to talk. Both times I went through cancer treatment and surgery, a friend gave us a gift card for a food delivery service - we could get what we wanted when we wanted and didn't have a fridge full of food I wasn't always hungry to eat or able to eat with medication restrictions (sometimes no dairy, sometimes low protein....). In shock if she had no symptoms is right. My BIL went into acute kidney failure before Thanksgiving with no symptoms other than fatigue and they are saying cancer, but not sure what kind. Hard time of year. and you are so thoughtful. I hope for strength for them and the family on the journey.
Top Answer
I'm so sorry to learn of this sad situation.

I was in somewhat of a similar situation when my sister's oncologist called me to advise that my sister had only a few weeks left to live. My sister did survive another 6 months, so I did have a chance to become more involved in her care, as well as to say goodbye and support her during her time of need.

1. As Barb suggests, food is helpful, and a major issue as your husband will also experience his own grief and fatigue. Providing food will help him focus on himself and your cousin. If she does have chemo, though, there might be an appetite loss or loss of interest in anything but specific foods. So bring food that provides energy, but not large quantities until it's determined how well she manages various foods.

2. Personally, seeing how devastating chemo and radiation was, and given that the prognosis isn't long term, I would think twice about chemo and radiation, because both will add to the challenges of the cancer taking over her body. There's really a trade-off here, a cost-benefit analysis of the potential benefits of chemo or rads vs. the physical and mental side effects, which are significant.

3. I would send a card that affirms your concern, care and support. For a long time most health cards were get well cards, which are inappropriate for someone with a terminal illness. Now there are "thinking of you, knowing you're facing challenges, and I'm supporting you" type of cards.

3. Offer to do shopping for the family, perhaps with her husband making lists of what's needed so you have your own master shopping list; her husband can tell you what's needed that week.

4. When/if she does want visitors, just plan to sit with her and help her with what she needs at that time – quiet, small talk, books, magazines, address, book, etc. Let her choose whether or not to talk. And limit visiting time; my sister was drained when people who didn't understand came over and stayed 2 hours.

My sister told me that engaging in conversation was an effort; she just wanted someone to be there in case she needed help.

5. Play music; we often ended our day with music to relax both of us. And don’t listen to the news, especially the political news or news of weather disasters.

6. Depending on the extent of the physical compromise, ask her husband if assistive devices are needed - a walker, wheelchair, etc. The oncologist's DME contacts would probably bring them, but learn how to use the wheelchair, how to lock it, remove the sides and the legs. If she’ll be using oxygen, learn how to clean and maintain the concentrator – buy the distilled water in jugs for them, change and clean the filters as necessary; learn how to use the backup tanks or concentrator.

7. Get blankets and warm things to keep around her. She may select one area of the house that's most comfortable and accessible, so also plan to bring a phone, address book, Kleenex, and other things she needs so she can comfortably stay in that area.

One cousin who tried to help my sister decided to reorganize everything, taking away my sister's address book and calendar and placing them where she thought they should be. Given that we still had doctor appointments, the missing calendar caused a lot of anxiety. My sister was really upset by the disappearance of these things, and she wasn’t strong enough to search the house to find them.

8. Make sure her brother's aware you can help; provide a list of things you might do, and ask not only what you can do, but if he would like specific things done...such as bringing food (as stated above), running errands, picking up meds. If they’re in an area in NC that gets snow, arrange to have the sidewalk and driveway cleaned. Perhaps do laundry or have it done so that’s another task that’s handled.

You might sit down with him and ask him to list all the chores he does, and see which ones you can do. If they have pets, offer to take them for a walk if appropriate. Feed the animals, take them to the vet if necessary.

Help to free him up so he can concentrate on being a fulltime caregiver.

9. Contact the local Gilda’s Club; arrange to take them, or either of them, or just attend support groups on your own. You’ll be meeting people who have or are going through this and can share insights and much needed support.

10. If this is a new doctor/oncologist, and your cousin and her husband need assurance, don't hesitate to get a second opinion.
Barbbrooklyn, Guestshopadmin and Gardenartist, THANK YOU so much for your thoughtful and excellent suggestions. I'm so sorry that you have learned much of this from personal experience regarding cancer with yourself or within your family.
Man, I HATE cancer. It's so cruel. Much like AD, VaD, LBD, etc. It robs the most wonderful people.

I will take your suggestions and try to provide what little support that I can. She actually has two sisters, but, with family dynamics.....it's a long story. I hope they can mend things as she goes through this journey. So terribly. sad.
Because she is an hour away, it might be better to provide gift cards from nearby restaurants that offer take-away or delivery. Ask her husband what might be useful. Ask him, too, if there are specific foods he'd like you to bring when you do visit. He is still eating even if her appetite is minimal. She might not want chocolate chip cookies, but he might find them handy.

My best friend's husband died this year of cancer. What a lot of people did was reminisce with him about things they had done together. A friend from high school told some of their escapades that his wife had never heard about.

Send cards. "Thinking of You" will do, or the nice blank cards you can write in. You can write a brief memory. "I was thinking today of the time we went to the beach together as teenagers. Remember that creepy guy who ..." It doesn't have to be anything significant. Just something you remember from her past.
I just remembered some things friends did for us.

1. One gave me a book by Bradley Trevor Grieve. He's an interesting person, with a very creative mind. His books aren't ones to read; they're filled with photos of animals ranging from humorous to hilarious, each photo matched very well with a caption.

His Blue Day book was the gift to me. I've read it several times, and each time feel uplifted by his sense of creativity.

2. Another came over weekly to bag and take out the garbage. A little thing, but it was one less for my sister or I to do.

3. That same friend sometimes took my sister to chemo or stayed with her when I needed to quickly go home and check out my own house.

4. A few others sent over trays of food.

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