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The Do's and Don'ts of Helping a Friend Whose Child is Battling Cancer

A cancer diagnosis is life-altering but when the diagnosis is for your child, life is thrown off its axis and becomes complete chaos. For parents whose child is undergoing treatment, the road is exhausting and never-ending, leaving them with little time for anything other than taking care of their child.

There are many things people can do and should not do when supporting friends who are dealing with a childhood cancer diagnosis. We have compiled a list of Do’s and Don’ts to help you navigate the unspoken questions and unchartered waters of pediatric cancer.

Don’t: Abandon Your Friends
Feeling like you are on a deserted island with no one to turn to for help when your child is diagnosed with cancer is an awful feeling. Parents need to know that their friends and family are still there to support them through the worst time in their lives. No matter how hard and awkward this may be for you, it is a million times more difficult for your friends. They have been forced to travel the unthinkable road of childhood cancer and should not have to go down it alone. They need you, and this is an opportunity for you to show your friends that you will be right there supporting them no matter what. You are their friend and they are not alone.

Do: Let Your Friends Know You’re Thinking of Them
Pick up the phone and check in on your friends often. They need your support now more than ever. Even if you don’t know what to say, sending a simple text message or card with the words, “I’m thinking of you,” is more than enough to show them that you care.

Don’t: Ask What You Can Do to Help
Asking parents how you can help puts more overwhelming pressure on them when they are already stressed, emotional, and filled with worry for their baby. Their lives have been turned upside down, so it may be hard for them to think of a way you can help. Instead, suggest a task that you would be willing to do.

Do: Help in Any Way You Can
Chores often take a back seat in times like these. Offering to help with household chores can go a long way. Simply mowing the lawn, going on a grocery run, cleaning the house, walking the dog, or watching their other kids can be a big help. These simple tasks get forgotten when parents are focusing on saving their child’s life.

Don’t: Suffocate the Family
There is a fine line between helping your friends and overstepping boundaries. There will be days they do not want to be bothered or would prefer to spend time with their children without interruptions and, you need to respect that, even if you planned on stopping by to check-in. Instead, opt for dropping off dinner, so they don’t have to worry about making a meal and can spend even more quality time with their kids.

Do: Offer to Act as Their Liaison for Everyone Who Wants to Help
Be the friend who steps up to act as the protective bubble between well-meaning people and parents trying to take care of their sick child. Offer to coordinate all service efforts intended for the family and handle updates. Your friends want to focus on their child, not spend the vast majority of their time fielding calls and scheduling people to help with what they need, such as dinners or housework. They also don’t want to have to continuously answer questions about their child’s prognosis or timeline; as their liaison, you would be able to take this off their plate.

Don’t: Rattle Off Statistics
Statistics help no one, especially parents whose child has been diagnosed with cancer. Their child is the only statistic that matters. You may think you are helping if the statistics fall in their favor, but that doesn’t mean anything and is likely not comforting for your friends. If you have nothing helpful to say, it’s best to say nothing at all and just offer to help.

Do: Leave the Medical Advice to the Doctors
Unless you are an oncologist, don’t recommend treatment protocols or alternative/holistic options. Nine times out of 10 parents have already read about it, possibly considered it, or it's too absurd. While your recommendations may be well-intentioned, they could also be dangerous unless you have a degree to back them up.

Don’t: Stare
It’s important that you not stare at your friend’s child. The treatment their child is undergoing, likely, has outward side effects such as hair loss and weight gain, along with visible ports and/or IV lines. This can cause a child to feel self-conscious and, staring at them won’t help matters.

Do: Be a Shoulder to Lean On and Listen to Their Grief
Sometimes all parents need is someone who will just listen and sit with them. You don't have to have the answers. Allowing them to lean on you for support while openly grieving their frustrations, pain, and hopelessness can be therapeutic. You don't need to interject your thoughts or opinions; listening can help in more ways than you know.

Don’t: Forget the Siblings
Siblings are affected just as much as parents. Like their parents, they are forced to sit helplessly on the sidelines, watching their brother or sister suffer, knowing there's nothing they can do to help. They also often struggle with feelings of being left out and forgotten because their sibling needs so much of their parent’s time. Offer to take the sibling(s) on a fun outing, stop by with a gift or care package for them, pick them up from school, drive to sporting practices, and always remember to check in with them.

Do: Provide Distractions for the Family
Cancer and treatment options are always at the forefront of their thoughts. Taking their minds off of it, even for a few minutes, helps. Stop by with a fun game, offer to host a movie night, send care packages, or even just send a funny card that will make them laugh.

Don’t: Make a donation to Your Preferred Charity In Their Child’s Name
Donating to a random charity you already support in no way benefits your friends or their child. It might make you feel like you've done a good deed in their child's honor, but it could have the opposite effect on your friends. Instead, speak with the family first to make sure they are okay with you donating in their honor.

Do: Fundraise for the Family
This is a great way to show support for the family. Fundraising can be done with the family as the beneficiary to help with bills, medical care, or making memories. If the family explicitly does not want this type of help, offer to fundraise for the charity of their choice that supports their child’s cancer.

Don’t: Visit If You or Anyone in Your Household is Sick
The last thing families have time for when their child is undergoing treatment is the risk of getting sick themselves or, worse, their child getting sick on top of their cancer. If you or anyone in your family is sick, stay away until you are all healthy.

Do: Offer to Give the Parents a Break
No parent wants to leave their sick child, but short breaks are necessary for their mental health and sanity. Offer to watch their child while they go on a walk for some fresh air, take a hot shower, grab a coffee, or spend the day with their other children. Even just 15 minutes away can provide them with a boost of energy to get through the rest of the day.