Supporting a family member through cancer treatment while living overseas

 February 2024

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is often a devastating blow, not just to those going through it but to their families as well. It can be a frightening time, and even more so when you’re living far away from your loved one.

You will not be able to be there for every round of chemo, or every operation so it’s only natural to feel sad, helpless, worried and even guilty. But the miles apart should not prevent you from providing valuable support and assistance. It’s important to remember that even though you’re not available to give hands-on assistance on a regular basis, you can still help from far away.

These are just some of the ways in which you can support a loved one going through cancer treatment when you live overseas. 

Just because miles separate you doesn’t mean you can’t be present for your loved one, so use technology to your advantage. Don't underestimate the emotional support that comes from regular phone calls and emails. Ask if your loved one is up to a video call, keeping in mind that they might be self-conscious about their appearance. Then plan a FaceTime or Skype date, where you can actually see each other.

Being emotionally available to talk about difficult subjects often helps your loved one to feel supported, and can help you feel like you are contributing. Your attention and concern can bring comfort and boost their spirits, while frequent chats will keep you feeling involved and informed.

Staying in touch and providing a listening ear are valuable contributions in their own right. Listen to their fears and frustrations. The best thing to do for someone who is suffering is to let them know they are not alone. Cancer makes people feel isolated from the rest of the world. It removes someone from their regular way of life. They have to face their mortality and may lie awake at night, focusing on their fears. Letting someone know you are with them through every step of their journey is the best comfort you can provide.

This layer of emotional support for your loved one is often as helpful as providing physical care, so it is important to keep this in mind. 

Cancer treatment can be long. Checking in regularly with cards and phone calls over the entire course of treatment and beyond will be extremely helpful.
Keep track of important dates like operations and let them know you care. A handwritten letter or card is a great way to let a family member know you are thinking of them. Sending notes or inspirational messages conveying prayers and healing thoughts can also be uplifting to people with cancer. Try to do this on days when they have treatments, follow-up appointments or important scans. Your message could make a big difference during a stressful time.

Chemotherapy treatments can be long, tiring, and uncomfortable. Putting together and sending a care package can be a great way to show you are there for them while providing some useful items. Thoughtfully chosen, yet practical gifts, can improve spirits and make life a little easier for your loved one.  

  • Warm blankets and socks
    Clinics and hospitals - where chemotherapy is administered - are often chilly, so comforting pillows, blankets and warm socks can make your loved one more comfortable. Additionally, blankets can provide a feeling of comfort and safety that goes beyond warmth.
  • Moisturisers and lip balm
    During chemotherapy, a common side effect is dry, painful skin and lips. Gentle skin moisturisers, unscented lotions and lip balms can relieve dry skin and prevent sores or rashes. In your care package, avoid products with a strong scent, as the smell can be irritating or nauseating to someone undergoing chemo.
  • Headwear and/or salon gift cards
    For many people receiving chemotherapy treatment, losing their hair causes both physical and emotional discomfort as they look for ways to dress their scalps. You can help by sending a gift card for a salon where they can be fitted for a wig, have their head shaved, or receive other beauty treatments. A colourful, stylish head covering or a hat are also a thoughtful gift; they may serve to boost their self-image while also keeping their head warm.
  • Snack baskets
    Snacking can pass the time during chemo treatments. Snacks like hard sweets and fruit baskets also help to counteract dry mouth and metal mouth (a metallic taste), a common side effects of chemotherapy. Dehydration often causes headaches during chemotherapy; caffeine-free and herbal teas are also a great addition to a care package as a way to provide relief and comfort.
  • Entertainment
    Treatments can be long and gruelling. Find out your loved one’s favourite form of entertainment and include little gifts such as magazine subscriptions, entertaining novels, a video streaming subscription, music CDs and music download gift cards or a book of crossword puzzles. These can be helpful distractions during lengthy chemotherapy sessions and can help fill time while waiting around in doctor’s offices. You can also buy gift cards to purchase apps, such as guided meditation.
  • Inspiration
    For people fighting cancer, staying positive can be nearly as essential as physical health. An inspirational book or quote, or even just a kind note, can go a long way in bolstering your loved one’s strength and spirit.

Cancer can be a frightening, mysterious experience, but no one should have to go it alone. These care package ideas are sure to put a smile on your loved one’s face. 


People going through treatment sometimes need a break from talking about the disease. Find ways to remind your family member about life outside cancer. If you both have the same favourite TV show, set up a time to webchat or video chat and watch the show together. It could help take their mind off cancer and bring you closer together.  
woman using computer

People with cancer may find it difficult to ask for help, or they may be too overwhelmed to know how you can help from afar. They don’t want to be a burden.

Talk with your loved one or the primary caregiver about the medical, financial, and home situation and assess current and future needs. Work together on problem-solving and see whether there is a particular role you can play.

People having surgery and undergoing cancer treatments often feel too tired, weak or sick to shop, prepare meals and clean up. Daily tasks become difficult. Since you can't prepare food and bring it over, perhaps arrange to have a meal delivered once a week from a local restaurant or organise a gardener to tend the garden. You also may be able to order groceries online or over the telephone from a local supermarket that delivers. Thoughtfully-chosen gift cards that provide meal delivery, house cleaning or spa services can be extremely useful.

Learn as much as you can about their cancer including its location, stage, treatment options and treatment side effects. Conference calls with the healthcare team, loved ones and caregivers can also bring everyone together to get the latest information at one time and keep everyone on the same page. You can also ask someone to record appointments, with the doctor’s permission, so you can listen directly to the conversation rather than asking someone to relay it. And take advantage of sharing an email/phone contact list with each other.

Cancer is overwhelming and many individuals, especially older people, may not have the skills or desire to gather all the information necessary to understand the disease and make major decisions. It can take some time and effort to sort through reliable information and you can do that. 

During cancer treatment you can offer to do some research on the various treatments, their side effects, comfort solutions, clinical trials, and available support services and share this information with family members back home.

Cancer leads almost everyone to experience higher levels of stress. Some people may develop depression, anxiety, grief, and anger as a result of their cancer diagnosis or even as a side effect of their treatment. Use online resources to gather information, connect with others, and access support. Look for good cancer support groups, either online or in person, as well as blogs and forums for advice and interaction. Reach out to experienced individuals who understand what the family is going through.

It can be hard to know which online information you find is accurate or applies to your loved one’s specific diagnosis. Turn to reputable and trusted websites for information such as the World Health Organisation.  

If your loved one asks you to contact medical providers, be sure you have written consent. Privacy laws prohibit health professionals from speaking to relatives - even adult children - without the patient's permission.

If your loved one has a caregiver, who could be another family member, during phone calls and visits make an attempt to reach out to that person, who also likely feels stressed. Ask how they are coping and offer emotional and practical support.

If, for instance, your mother is caring for your ill father, you may want to provide some respite time during a visit home - arrange for some pampering for the primary caregiver, perhaps a special dinner out at a restaurant or an afternoon at a spa. If you can't visit, you could arrange some in-home assistance to lessen the burden or help them find a support group for caregivers.

Prioritise your time and budget; determine when it’s most important to be onsite versus when you can provide help from a distance. Knowing when to plan a short or prolonged visit isn’t always easy - but maintaining open and honest communication about when you can or cannot feasibly visit - and what you can or cannot accomplish while visiting - helps to reduce unrealistic expectations on all sides.

Use holiday time to visit and spend this time doing pleasurable things together. Don't sweep in and try to micro-manage the household or medical care. Take on some practical chores, or those that your loved one would rather not do, and use this time to evaluate their overall needs. 

And remember, for many patients, the weeks and months after cancer treatment are over can be some of the most challenging. No matter how well your family member may seem, don’t assume the hard times are past once the treatment is over.

1.    Take the time to process your own feelings about the diagnosis. 

2.    Research their diagnosis on your own time. 

3.    Don’t offer unsolicited medical advice. 

4.    Allow your loved one to express sadness and fear.

5.    Send thoughtful and useful gifts.

6.    Bring laughter and lightness with you when you visit. 

7.    Check in frequently with texts, notes and emails.

8.    Avoid asking “how can I help?” 

9.    Don’t forget their caregiver.

10. Keep checking in, even after treatment is over.