Friends & Family
Treatment for childhood cancer can last several months to several years. That’s a long time for anyone, especially a child. Cancer treatment is not just physically challenging, it wears on emotions and deals a significant blow to family finances. Family and friends often want to help, but don’t know what to do or say when a child has cancer. At the same time, parents of cancer kids may find it hard to talk frankly about their challenges and needs, even with their closest friends and relatives.
The following suggestions* come from families across the country. We hope they provide some insight to friends and family who want to help during this difficult time.
Ways to help a family fighting childhood cancer:
- Clean the house before they come home from the hospital.
- Mow the lawn, rake leaves or shovel the driveway.
- Provide care for pets.
- Drive siblings to activities.
- Buy iTunes or other gift cards for the child undergoing treatment.
- Buy puzzle, reading and activity books for the child undergoing treatment.
- Provide a night or day of babysitting for the siblings, the child in treatment or both.
- Fill a bag with things you think the parent(s) might need and drop it by the hospital. Helpful items include: note cards, postage stamps, nail care products, laundry detergent, current magazines, hand lotion (hospital soap really dries out your hands), quarters (for hospital vending machines), bottled water and/or other drinks socks; chewing gum or candy, a flashlight or booklight (for when the child is asleep but the parent isn’t), gas cards and gift cards for nearby restaurants that deliver to the hospital.
- If possible, visit the parent in the hospital. Bring a favorite food or a new magazine, and lots of news and stories so they feel less left out of “normal life.” Offer to stay with the child so the parent can get a shower or just get out of the room for a bit.
- Bring friends to visit a teenage patient. Staying in touch with friends and having their support is VERY important at this age. Even with texting and social media, there’s nothing better than spending time with friends.
- Enlist friends, neighbors or classmates to send cards and silly, fun things to the child and siblings. A few dollar store items can go a long way toward alleviating pain and fear.
- Find out what the child likes (stickers, beanie babies, cool hats, pins, legos, etc.) and start a collection or add to an existing one. Collecting will provide something fun for the child to focus on and people will know of something to send or bring that’s sure to bring a smile.
- Commit to be a friend to one or all of the sick child’s siblings – someone they can call on or talk to or when feeling left out. Siblings are scared and often feel left out when all the focus seems to be on their sick brother or sister. They need someone who can take them places, listen to them and make them feel important. Be that person!
- Determine a need the family has and try to coordinate a solution. Does a sibling need a place to go after school when one parent is at work and the other is at the hospital? Do they need help with transportation or meals on certain days when normal life is impossible? Once you’ve identified an area of concern, work with the family to solve the problem.
- Never sponsor a large project like a fundraiser or house repair without first talking with the family. Such efforts, though well-intended, may not meet the family’s most urgent needs. Support efforts need to respect the family’s wishes and honor their privacy.
- When visiting, be light-hearted and show up (at the hospital or at home) with bubbles, silly string, joke books, Marx Brothers videos, rub-on tattoos or another fun or funny gift. Life with cancer is scary enough without having all the grown-ups walk in with long faces.
- Set up a group activity. Bring a roll of paper, painters tape – the kind that doesn’t leave sticky marks – and a box of markers to transform a hospital room wall so visitors can draw pictures, write down jokes, leave funny notes or sign their names. Patients can join in the fun too!
- Supply napkins, paper plates, plastic cups, plastic silverware, etc. for the family. They’re always useful in the hospital, and at home they’ll allow the parents to spend less time cleaning up after meals and more time focusing on their child(ren).
- If the child is still in diapers, find out the brand and size and pick up a box or two for the family. Children receiving chemotherapy need to be changed much more often and families can easily go through three times as many diapers as they did before diagnosis.
Messages from families fighting childhood cancer
- Please don’t take “no, we don’t need any help” as a final response – ask again.
- Please don’t say, “Call us if you need anything” because we probably won’t. We’re not used to needing help from others and often are so overwhelmed we don’t know what we need or how to ask.
- Think about what you can do to help and make a concrete offer. Say “I’d like to mow your grass” or “I’ll babysit (the sibling(s)) this week-end” or “I’ll snow blow your driveway for the season” If you offer something definite and we refuse, please call back in a week or month and ask again. Newly diagnosed families often don’t realize how disruptive cancer treatment will be.
- Remember that a childhood cancer diagnosis presents a long term family problem. Meals and help the first few weeks are nice, but treatment can last one year or several years. Families need emotional support for the entire time the child is in treatment.
- It’s hard to know what to say, but a simple call or email every week or two to say “I’m thinking of you” can mean so much. Parents often lose friends or are distanced from relatives as treatment drags on – people who call for no reason at all are treasured!
- Please don’t say: “I don’t know how you handle it. You’re so strong, I just couldn’t do it.” Parents have no choice but to handle the situation, just as parents handle any other parenting challenge. Think about what you would do if your child had a serious illness – a friend of relative whose child has cancer is no different than you.
- Please don’t say “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle.” The parent of a child with cancer may feel they are near the breaking point, or may no longer be on speaking terms with the Lord.
- Acknowledge that something horrible has happened. It won’t be news to the family and is much better than tongue-tied, awkward silences.
*Adapted in part from the Ped-Onc Resource Center