A cancer diagnosis provides an education like no other. In 2007, at the age of 28, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

It can rightly be called New Zealand's cancer - it kills more New Zealanders than breast and prostate cancers combined and we have one of the highest rates of occurrence and death from the disease in the OECD.

Nearly 3000 Kiwis are diagnosed annually and, of these, about 1200 will die - that's 100 men and women every month. Bowel cancer is the major reason New Zealand's cancer death rate is 10 per cent higher than Australia's.

Over the course of my treatment for stage three bowel cancer - which involved a bowel resection, eight rounds of chemotherapy (over nearly half a year) and a liver resection - I learned a great deal about what gestures and actions are most helpful and comforting.

Advertisement

If you haven't personally experienced cancer or other serious illness, the self-imposed pressure to do and say the right things can be daunting.

But take heart, showing you care is simpler than you think. In my experience, the small things - the phone calls, heartfelt cards and home visits - were every bit as meaningful as the grander gestures.

Here are the top eight things that helped me through treatment for bowel cancer:

• All the cards, phone calls and emails I received when people learned of my diagnosis were what meant the most. Always show you care. In the social media age, go that extra step and make it more personal.

• My brother loaded my laptop with movies for me to watch in hospital.

• My parents and parents-in-law put their lives on hold for six months to take "week on, week off" turns to look after my 6-month-old son at our house, so I could always be with him.

• My husband put his life to one side for a year to make it all about me. When he went to Melbourne for work he took me with him. He also took me to comedy shows so I could have a good laugh.

• My best friend, Elizabeth, was amazing and showed she cared in so many ways. I had chemo in winter, and a common side effect of my form of chemo was extreme sensitivity to cold. Elizabeth would turn on her spa pool 24 hours before every three-weekly infusion, and afterwards I would go to her house and soak away the chill that had seeped into my bones. She took me away for a girls' weekend at a friend's bach, where we ate chocolate and watched movies and I slept a lot. Nausea was a constant companion throughout chemo, and Elizabeth didn't blink when I had to run and vomit into a rubbish bin. We still laugh about that embarrassing moment.

• A friend who was living overseas at the time and regretted not being home to support me sent a gift at the end of every one of the eight rounds of chemo. There were gourmet lamingtons, a massage voucher, food hampers and, at the end, tickets to We Will Rock You.

• Care packages galore. One friend sent me crazy, multi-coloured socks and a very funny book.

• People visited me when I was too sick to get out of the house, and that meant so much. Hearing other people's news helped me forget about cancer for a while.

CottonSoft is selling specially marked packs of toilet tissue. $1 from each sale will go to Bowel Cancer NZ. June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. More info at beatbowelcancer.org.nz