How to Help Parents of Cancer Patients

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time of year to put a strong emphasis on generating awareness and raising funds for childhood cancer. The statistics are heart-wrenching.

After accidents, cancer is the second-leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14, according to the American Cancer Society.

The American Childhood Cancer Organization cites approximately 1 in 285 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday.

Only 4% of federal government cancer research funding goes to children, according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I knew very little about childhood cancer until I began supporting communications efforts for Akron Children’s Hospital with my current employer. I only have one personal connection with a child who beat cancer. But, you and I both know one experience is one too many.

During my work, I learned new information about how to best communicate with parents whose children were recently diagnosed or going through treatment. I read written feedback from a dozen parents of cancer patients on how others can help. I grew emotional as I read each person’s suggestion. I was unaware how easy it is to unintentionally hurt parents with words and actions.

In light of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, I’m sharing the hospital’s do’s and don’ts list of how to help support parents. I hope you find it as helpful as I do.

The Do’s

  • Ignore the stigmas. Kids with cancer aren’t weak and they’re not frail. You can touch and talk to them.
  • Teach children. Instead of allowing kids to stare at another child with a bald head, use it as a teaching moment – explain to your own kids that the child is battling cancer.
  • Know there’s no magic word. Parents are in a fog after learning their child has cancer. Remind parents of their child’s positive qualities and be encouraging.
  • Show empathy. Tell parents their child is brave. Hold parents’ hands and let them cry when they need it.
  • Be supportive. Set up a meal train, help with other children, mow the lawn, clean their house. Whether big or small, offer to help.
  • Respect privacy. Sometimes parents need rest and don’t want company. Call first before showing up at their home or hospital.
  • Tell parents they’re top of mind. It’s comforting for parents to know people are praying for or thinking of them.
  • Stay the course. Companionship and help occurs the most in the beginning stages. Be brave enough to stay the entire journey.
  • Lift their spirits. Decorate for holidays. Even when parents are home from the hospital, they’re too preoccupied to decorate their homes.
  • Change the subject. Talk to parents about life outside of cancer.

The Don’ts

  • Be overbearing. Parents need time to decompress or have a good cry. Be aware of when to give parents and family the space they need. Their main goal is to take care of their child.
  • Ask too many questions. Some have asked, “Are they sure?” or “Have you tried essential oils?” Too much noise and constantly asking about their child can be overwhelming and annoying for parents.
  • Parents, like their children, want the truth. Be honest and upfront. Don’t use phrases of false hope (e.g., “It’s going to be OK.”)
  • Say you understand. Unless you have a child who’s battled cancer, you can’t relate.
  • Let parents go at it alone. Distractions help keep parents’ minds off of things, but be careful not to be forceful.
  • Fundraise without consent. Talk to the family before arranging a large fundraiser so they are not surprised.
  • Forget the siblings. Small gestures of goodwill for brothers or sisters remind them you understand their lives changed too.
  • Lose hope. Be calm and loving, and portray optimism.
  • Push families. Parents often don’t know what help they want or need. Try not to pressure them to think of something.
  • Be a constant voice. Find ways to simply and quietly make the family’s lives better.

We all need to be better advocates for children impacted by cancer. Here are a couple of ways to help bridge the federal funding research gap:

Do you have other suggestions on how to help parents or know of other organizations to donate funds? Please share!

(Discloser: I support Akron Children’s Hospital with communications efforts. The opinions here are my own.) 

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Kim Wysocki

Kim is a public relations professional. Her three-ring circus (aka, her children), husband and yellow lab keep her busy when she’s not generating publicity. She’s an avid watcher of the Today Show, loves staying fit and can’t pass up a good clothing and accessory deal. In her free time, she’s volunteering at St. Gabriel School or planning her next family vacation. Kim lives in Concord.

1 CommentLeave a comment

  • Thank you for sharing this!!! I have two more from friends with little fighters: listen. And, bring coffee to the hospital. Real, hot, strong coffee. You don’t even have to stay, just bring it!

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