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Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.

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Offering Help to Families Facing Cancer

Knowing how to help a family whose child has cancer or other life-threatening illness isn’t always easy. It can be hard to know what to say or do. Uncertainty and fear can prevent you from giving help. Such feelings are normal, but there are simple things you can do to offer support. 

Two female friends hugging

Showing support for families can be as simple as a phone call, short visit, or running an errand.

Reach out often

Families can feel alone during their child’s treatment. Love and support are important. Communicate often via phone, email, or text. The message can be as simple as “I’m thinking of you” or “I’m praying for you.”

Here are some tips for reaching out to families whose child has cancer:

  • Set a reminder on your phone or mark your calendar to remember to reach out. 
  • Continue to let the family know you are thinking of them—even after some time has passed—as others may not be checking in. 
  • Don’t be surprised if families are not able to respond to all messages.
  • If you visit, it’s also OK to just be with them and be silent. Your presence and support will let them know that you care and that they are not alone. 
  • Remember to support each caregiver and family member.

Help with practical needs

People often say, “Let me know if there is anything that you need.” But this can be too broad and overwhelming for families and caregivers. It may be easier to offer to take care of any current, specific needs. You can say things like:

  • “What do you need this week?”
  • “Where do you shop? I will buy you a gift card.”
  • "What night can I bring you dinner?"
  • "Can we take care of the other children so you can get out?"
  • “I am going to the store today. Can I pick up something for you?”

Some ways to give practical help are:

  • Give gift cards for local stores or restaurants.
  • Provide a meal for the family on a certain night.
  • Invite siblings to join in social activities.
  • Run errands or give rides.
  • Mow the lawn, water plants, get mail, or take care of pets.
  • Babysit the child or siblings. 
  • Put together a care package. Think about the child, siblings, and caregivers. Items may include:
    • Snacks and candy
    • Fun items such as toys, games, crafts, movies, magazines, and activity books
    • Items for the hospital room or bedroom such as posters, decals, string lights, or window markers
    • Tissues, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial wipes  

Be present and make a personal connection 

Show that you understand and care by giving time, attention, and genuine interest. 

  • Offer to visit the home or hospital. Short, frequent visits can remind families that they are not alone. Always ask the family before visiting.
  • Make a personal connection. Remember what makes the person special. Comment on hobbies, talk about a favorite sports team, or ask about a picture. See beyond the illness and acknowledge the person.  
  • Provide encouragement. Give a hug. Offer a smile and a kind word. A simple statement such as, “Your child is lucky to have such a strong, loving family for support” can help families find strength.
  • Support a cause that is meaningful for the family. Join in awareness activities or fundraisers the family supports by volunteering, raising money, or telling others.

Connect through shared experiences

If you have gone through a similar journey, sharing what supported you can sometimes be helpful. But keep in mind, your experiences may be different. What was helpful for you might not be helpful for someone else. If you have advice, ask if you can share it before you give it. 

If you know someone who has been through something similar, you might ask if the families would be interested in connecting. Be sure that both people agree before sharing contact information. For example: “My friend’s child went through something that sounds similar. He gave permission for me to share his contact information if you want someone to talk to. Don’t feel like there’s any pressure. Only if you feel comfortable.” 

Be sensitive and remember that each family’s journey and needs are different. 

Key points about helping families

  • It can be hard to know how to reach out to someone whose child has a serious medical condition. 
  • It is OK to say very little and to be honest about not knowing what to say. 
  • Reach out often and be present. Even short texts or visits can make families feel less alon. 
  • There are many ways to show support, including messages, meals, and practical help.
  • Think about all family members and caregivers who are affected by the child’s diagnosis when giving support.

Reviewed: January 2024