When Children Have Cancer
Most people quickly and generously jump in to support a friend who has cancer or a friend grappling with cancer in the family. However, there’s something about children with cancer that tugs at the heart a little more. Children come with an inherent vulnerability. Add a cancer diagnosis, and friends of the family are left speechless.
How do you support a family whose child has cancer? How can parents explain it to children who have a classmate with cancer? Answers to questions like these are non-clinical yet meaningful to parents.
Help Share Updates. Parents of a child with cancer are now even busier attending to their child’s care. Notifying friends of the diagnosis and giving updates is time consuming, especially when answering the same questions over and over from many concerned friends and family.
You can help gather phone numbers and emails of everyone needing to be notified. Designate one person to call or email everyone on the list to give them updates.
Online social support tools, such as a blog or Facebook page, can be efficient and useful. CaringBridge.org and CarePages.com also offer free private web pages to keep loved ones informed. Remember to always review messages and check facts with the family first.
Arrange a Cooking Schedule
It’s likely the family’s main cook is also consumed with caring for the sick child. Establishing an online calendar, such as a Google calendar or Care Calendar, to coordinate friends bringing meals can alleviate the worry about cooking.
Be sensitive to preferences, and not just dietary needs. Ask the family if they prefer you to stop in and say hello or leave the food at the door. Send food in recyclable leftover containers instead of dishes that have to be washed and returned.
Help Children Understand and Get Involved
When a classmate has cancer, it’s important to help their friends understand the diagnosis and what it means—and doesn’t mean. The American Cancer Society recommends that parents explain the cancer in age-appropriate terms. For example, children up to age eight can be told that the body is made up of lots of parts. When someone has cancer, it means that something has gone wrong with one part and it has stopped doing what it’s supposed to do.
Many children have a natural desire to help, but, like adults, they may struggle at figuring out what to do. Consider helping your child coordinate get-well cards from the class and offer to help the family provide age-appropriate treatment updates for the teacher to share with the class.
It’s also helpful to keep the family informed on classroom news. Homework and assignments are typically coordinated by other means, but news of class events, even light-hearted stories of other classmates, help the family and patient stay connected.
Don’t Forget Siblings
Lives of the patient’s siblings also are disrupted. They and their parents would appreciate help in arranging sibling outings to the movies, a sporting event or other activities where they can receive respite and normalcy. Assisting with babysitting siblings, taking them to extracurricular lessons or just helping with homework can be a huge help to the parents.
Often the best thing friends can do is to be available. It’s difficult for parents to predict specific support they’ll need, but they want friends to lean on. Some of the most important gestures are the simplest like mowing the yard, walking the dog, doing laundry and cleaning the house.
Finding the perfect words to say may be challenging, but volunteering to make life a little easier always strikes the right tone.
Joseph Litam, MD
Joseph Litam, MD, is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–McAllen, 1901 S. 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas.
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