This article originally appeared on the Dana-Farber Insight blog.
By Jane Roper
When our five-year-old daughter was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), our world was turned upside down.
Extended hospital stays, twice weekly clinic visits, the side effects of chemo, and the constant possibility of unexpected hospital admissions mean stress and exhaustion for all of us. And looming in the background of it all is the unspoken worry: will our daughter get through this?
It’s a hard time in our lives, to say the least. But the amazing outpouring of support from our friends and family has gone a long way to make it easier.
If someone you know has a child being treated for cancer, there are a lot of ways to help. Here are some tips and ideas based on our experience and that of other families we’ve met:
1. Don’t just ask; do. It’s nice to say, “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.” But we love even more when people don’t leave the ball in our court, but make a concrete offer: “I’d like to bring a meal, if that would help. When would be the best time to deliver it?” or “I’m free this Saturday night. Want me to come babysit so you can have a night out?”
2. Give a gift card. It may seem impersonal, but it’s not. Having a child with cancer can be a major financial strain on families, between related expenses (parking, co-pays, take-out food, etc.) or a parent having to work less or not at all. Gift cards for household expenses like groceries, pharmacy, and purchases at places like Target or The Home Depot can be a huge help. (Personally, I always appreciated Starbucks cards, too!)
3. Don’t forget siblings. Cancer is just as disruptive to the lives of “well” children as it is to their brothers or sisters with cancer. Siblings grapple with jealousy, fear, anger, and a host of other emotions. If you want to send a gift for the child with cancer, give something equally special to his or her siblings. Not only will the siblings appreciate it; the parents will, too—trust me.
4. Help later. While it’s natural to want to help immediately after a child is diagnosed, don’t forget that cancer can be a long haul. There may be months or even years of treatment and hospital stays ahead. And while cancer quickly becomes the “new normal” for families, the emotional and financial strains remain.
I was thrilled when, just recently—a whole six months after our daughter’s diagnosis—a friend sent us a gift certificate to a gourmet Italian food store that makes amazing frozen entrees. There’s nothing like pulling a delicious, ready-made meal from the freezer after a long, draining day at the clinic.
5. Say something. We are moved and appreciative when friends send gifts, make meals, etc. But we also love getting cards (especially darkly funny ones—but that’s just us), emails, or even simply hearing, “I’ve been thinking about you,” when we see friends and acquaintances. It’s a source of great comfort and strength to us to know that people are sending “good vibes” to our family.
Some friends kept their distance after they learned of our daughter’s cancer, later telling us that they “didn’t know what to say,” or thought that just sending their thoughts or sympathies wouldn’t be enough given the magnitude of our situation, so it was better to keep silent. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth. We don’t need to be handled with kid gloves just because we’ve got a sick child. If anything, we’re tougher than ever.
Of course, all of the above are based on our family’s particular preferences and experiences. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say that if you’re not sure how to support a family dealing with a childhood cancer, you probably can’t go wrong with #5.
Jane Roper is the author of a memoir, Double Time: How I Survived–and Mostly Thrived–Through the First Three Years of Mothering Twins (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), and a novel, Eden Lake (Last Light Studio, 2011). She received her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her writing has appeared on Salon, Babble, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Jane lives in the Boston area with her husband and twin daughters.