Sep 18, 2017, 3:06:06 PM CDT Nov 21, 2019, 11:59:19 AM CST

How to support the parents of a child with cancer

Tips for providing help and care for families facing cancer

Parent holding child's hand with IV Parent holding child's hand with IV

When a child in your community is diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to want to help, but you might not always know how to lend a hand.

“It’s so hard because every parent copes differently,” says Mary Van Meter, certified child life specialist at Pauline Allen Gill Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Health℠. “Many parents say it is hard to hear ‘I’m so sorry.’ Rather, it’s important to focus on the positive statements of, ‘We are in this with you. Whatever you need, we’re here.’”

There are many ways you can provide encouraging support and meaningful help to families facing cancer including:

Visiting families and patients

Many families may not want visitors right after a diagnosis. They may need time to be together as a family, or maybe they are concerned about infection risks.

Always ask before visiting, and give the family time to become more comfortable with their new routine before visiting. Just because you may not be able to visit early after the diagnosis doesn’t mean the family won’t welcome you weeks later.

“Having a child’s friends come visit can be uplifting and can help them stay connected and feel more normal,” says Van Meter. Families may visit in the hospital during visiting hours or when the child is at home.

Bring necessities

Children may spend a few weeks in the hospital at any given time. Van Meter says families and friends can help out by bringing necessities families may not be able to get at the hospital, including:

  • Favorite snacks
  • Books, movies and magazines
  • Comfortable, clean clothes
  • Toiletries like deodorant, toothbrushes, soap or shampoo
  • Clean blankets or pillows
  • Activities for the child, like coloring books or crafts

Always ask if you can bring anything to help before you visit. Parents may have a list of items ready.

Be the messenger

Van Meter says many parents tire of answering the same questions repeatedly. With permission from the parents, you can be the messenger to spread information and news. Just verify with the parents what information can be shared and with whom.

Support at home

Just because a child is in the hospital, parents’ responsibilities don’t stop. They may have other children to care for, may need to continue to work outside the home or simply need help caring for their home. Friends can lend a hand by:

  • Providing rides and helping out with other siblings
  • Making meals to be delivered to the house
  • Mowing the lawn or taking care of other household tasks

Many websites allow you to create a schedule of tasks or food drop-offs. These sites allow parents to easily communicate what they need while giving you a way to help. They enlist friends, neighbors and family, so parents don’t feel overwhelmed.

Say the right things

It can be difficult to know what to say to parents who are facing such a challenging time. First, it’s important to know that parents need support too and don’t want to feel isolated. Even just a few quick phone calls during the week or notes throughout treatment can help parents feel supported.

However, it’s important to avoid unsolicited advice, platitudes or saying you know how they feel – unless you’ve experienced what they are going through. Sometimes, when we don’t know what to say we can unintentionally say something wrong. Here’s a few sayings to avoid:

  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Have you tried x treatment? I read online it helps cure cancer.
  • I know exactly how you feel.
  • I don’t know how you do it. I could never handle this.
  • It will all be okay.

Instead, focus on expressing compassion and letting them know you are concerned and want to help. Positive things to say may include:

  • I want to help you. What night can I drop a dinner off for you?
  • I can’t imagine how you must feel. I’m always here to talk if you need me.
  • You’re handling this with so much courage and strength. You can lean on me if you need help.
  • I’m thinking of you.
  • I know someone whose child also has/had cancer. Would you like to speak with them?

All families facing cancer need different kinds of support and love. If you are unsure how to help, you can always ask first to ensure you offer the care they truly need.

Watch our video series for more resources to help navigate a cancer diagnosis.

Share this information

Provide support to parents of a child with cancer by filling in the gaps. Offer to help with household chores, bring items to the hospital or provide care to other siblings. See more tips on how to help via @Childrens. Click to tweet.

Learn more

Learn more about the Pauline Allen Gill Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Health and how our highly trained experts help children fight cancer.

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