Making a Difference

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2023

People who have experienced cancer firsthand often want to support others with cancer by volunteering. Whether you are a cancer survivor or care for someone with cancer, you have valuable experience that can help others. Becoming a volunteer can make a difference in a person's life. It can also positively affect your own life.

Volunteering offers different rewards for everyone. Many volunteers say sharing their time makes them feel good. They also say it can help them build new friendships and widen their support network.

How to get started as a volunteer

Once you have decided to become a volunteer, think about your interests, strengths, and areas of expertise. Consider how you could use your skills to help organizations with their mission. Also, think about how much time you have to give in your schedule. You may prefer to volunteer in occasional activities or more regularly. Cancer groups provide many ways for someone to volunteer. Here are common categories, which may help you decide how you'd like to get started volunteering for an organization.

Service and support. These programs provide information and help people with cancer find ways to cope. There are many kinds of organizations you can join:

  • Telephone hotlines/helplines. Volunteers are trained to give easy-to-understand information over the telephone or via email and lend support by listening to the concerns of people with cancer. Review our list of telephone and email cancer helplines.

  • Support buddies. Volunteers connect one-on-one with a patient to help provide information and support, to help someone at an earlier stage of their journey better understand what experiences they may go through in the future. Learn more about organizations that provide support buddies.

  • Cancer support groups. Volunteers can lead or participate in support groups for people diagnosed with cancer or caregivers. You could find an existing support group to volunteer with or start your own.

  • Other cancer support programs. Different organizations offer a range of emotional and practical support to people with cancer and their families. This can include getting patients such things as wigs, scarves, and books. Other types of support include help with medical referrals, legal services, and rides to and from medical appointments.

Awareness and education. Cancer organizations often need people to help raise awareness and educate others about cancer prevention and screening. People can also share about their own cancer journey during these activities. They may also provide tips about living a healthy lifestyle and follow-up care after active treatment ends. This may take place through live or online presentations at schools, workplaces, and health fairs. Here's how you can help:

  • Learn how to teach a session about cancer at your workplace, community center, or place of worship.

  • Provide office services at your local cancer organization to help with event planning.

  • Join a committee that plans new educational programs.

Fundraising. Cancer organizations usually need to raise money to maintain services and programs for people with cancer and their families. Consider getting involved in fundraising activities for a cause you care about, such as races, golf tournaments, luncheons, dinners, plays, concerts, fashion shows, or auctions.

Advocacy. "Being a cancer advocate" can mean different things, but in general it means supporting and speaking in favor of a cause. A specific type of cancer advocacy involves supporting laws that help people with cancer and their families. Or, public policy advocacy may include speaking out about issues that affect people with cancer. Another option is to help lead an effort to change policies around access to health care or funding for research.

If you are interested in helping advance the science of cancer, you can become a research advocate. Research advocates help scientists focus on a different oncology issues that are meaningful to people with cancer. Opportunities include participating in grant review panels, research policy discussions, and clinical research groups. Many organizations offer in-person and online training on becoming a research advocate.

Learn more about being a cancer advocate.

How to find volunteer opportunities

Here are ways to find volunteer opportunities in your local area:

  • Tell your family, friends, coworkers, and health care providers that you want to get involved in cancer-related volunteer activities. Talk with them about your interests and ways you may want to help. Ask for their suggestions about how you can volunteer.

  • Find out about local volunteer programs where you live. Contact your local hospital, cancer center, associations, and places of worship to learn about their cancer volunteer programs. Ask how you can become involved. You can also look for announcements in your local newspaper or online news sources, library, and community center. Or check the social media sites of health-related organizations in your community.

  • Contact a cancer-related group and ask about available volunteer opportunities. You can also look for a disease-specific group if you are interested in helping people who have the same kind of cancer that you did.

  • Find advocacy programs that are sponsored by local and federal government organizations, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the National Cancer Institute. National and international professional cancer organizations may also have advocacy programs of their own. Learn more about ASCO's program.

How to help people with cancer cope with everyday life

Keep in mind that you do not have to join an organization to make a difference in the life of someone with cancer. Sometimes, people find that the act of helping family members, friends, or members of their community with daily tasks brings deep meaning, joy, and satisfaction. Here are some specific things you can do:

  • Offer to bring a meal, run an errand, care for a pet, go to the supermarket, or do household chores.

  • Help someone get ready for appointments by making a list of questions to ask the doctor. Use your experience to help people with cancer feel more comfortable talking about their concerns with their health care team.

  • Drive someone to and from appointments.

  • Attend an appointment with someone. Most patients benefit from having a second person with them at their appointment to take notes and process the important information the doctor shares. Or, offer to keep them company at their next treatment session.

  • Help someone find more information about a specific disease.

  • Offer to talk with someone who has a similar diagnosis about the experiences you had and the choices along the way. But remember that all people have a unique experience with cancer. Your goal should be to focus on the newly diagnosed person rather than your own experience.

  • Engage with people using social media to help them find cancer information that is credible and supportive.

  • Listen to and acknowledge someone’s concerns and uncertainties. Provide reassurance if you feel comfortable doing so.

  • Instead of asking how you can help, offer specific ideas for how you can help. For example, say "Can I bring you dinner on Tuesday night?" or "Do you need someone to drive you to your appointment on Wednesday?"

    Learn more about supporting an individual with cancer.

Related Resources

What Can I Donate to Help People With Cancer?

How Do I Know I’m Supporting a Good Charity?

How My Metastatic Cancer Diagnosis Led Me to a Full-Time Career in Patient Advocacy

How the Cancer Community Can Help Close the Care Gap This World Cancer Day

More Information

The Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO

American Cancer Society: Get Involved

National Cancer Institute: Facing Forward: Making a Difference in Cancer