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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 is affected by cancer isn’t always easy. During such a difficult time, it can be hard to know what to say or do. Concern over saying or doing the wrong thing can result in not providing the help families want and need.

Reach out regularly

Families often feel isolated during treatment. Love and support are more important than ever. Communicate regularly via phone, email or text. The message can be simple:

  • “I’m thinking of you.”
  • “I’m praying for you.”
  • “I’m wearing this for you.”

Mark your calendar as a reminder to reach out. Continue to let the family know you are thinking of them. There is usually an outpouring of support at the beginning. But as lives get busy, support tapers off. Remembering each family member and offering encouragement is important throughout the entire cancer journey.

Man delivers food

Providing a meal for the family is one way to help with immediate needs.

Understand immediate needs

Asking a family how you can help may be too broad. People often say, "Let me know if there is anything that you need." However, this can be overwhelming for families and hard to coordinate. It may be easier to offer to take care of immediate needs.

  • “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?"

Specific ways to help may include:

  • Sending gift cards for local stores or restaurants
  • Providing a meal for the family on a specific night
  • Inviting siblings to participate in social activities
  • Running errands or providing transportation
  • Mowing the lawn, watering plants, getting mail, or taking care of pets
  • Babysitting the child or siblings 
  • Putting together a care package
    • Snacks and candy
    • Fun items such as toys, art projects, movies, magazines, and crossword puzzles
    • Items for the hospital room or bedroom such as posters, decals, string lights, or window markers
    • Tissues, hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes  

Show emotional support  

Every situation is different, but it is important to support emotional well-being of the child and family.  

  • Offer to visit the home or hospital. Be sensitive to schedules and other needs, but a visit can help remind families that they are not alone.
  • Make a personal connection. Remember what makes the person special. Comment on a smile, talk about a favorite sports team, ask about a picture. See beyond the cancer, and acknowledge the person.  
  • Express your concern on a deeper level about emotional well-being of the child and family members. Show empathy by giving time and attention and reflecting a real desire to know how the family is doing. 
  • Donate to a foundation that focuses on children’s cancer or the specific type of cancer the family is facing. Participate in fundraisers the family supports by volunteering, raising money, or telling others.
  • Connect through shared experiences if appropriate. 

Even if you have a family member who had a similar cancer, your experiences may be different. However, sharing what helped you through your own challenges may be helpful. If you do have advice, offer to share before actually doing so. It may be helpful to connect your friend with someone who might understand what they’re going through. For example: “My friend’s child went through something that sounds very similar. Here is 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.

  • 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.

Reviewed: June 2018