“Your child has cancer.”
These are four words no parent ever wants to hear. Yet every day in the United States, 43 children under the age of 18 are diagnosed with cancer.
In April of 2009, my 5-year-old son was one of them.
It’s impossible to be prepared for this kind of diagnosis. We survived by taking one day at a time. Luckily we had a huge support network of family, friends and church and community members. Everyone wanted to show their support.
Most of the support we received was helpful and well-meaning. While everyone handles a crisis in her own way, there are some things that are better left unsaid to a parent who is battling cancer with her child. Here are eight helpful things you can say to a friend whose child has cancer:
“This really sucks. I’m sorry.”
Cancer does suck, and we just want someone to agree with us on that. Saying something like “everything happens for a reason” is not helpful, because no parent can understand the reasoning behind her child contracting a disease that takes the lives of nearly 2,000 children every year. We also don’t want to hear about your friend’s co-worker’s grandson who had this type of cancer too and was just fine. Right now we’re scared and don’t know if our child will be just fine.
“I’m praying for you/thinking of you.”
Sometimes all that got me through long days at the hospital with my son were the prayers and well-wishes of people who cared about us. At a time when “thoughts and prayers” are casually tossed around social media, it’s nice to have something to back this up. I loved coming home to a card in the mail, receiving Facebook messages or texts of support or comments on my son’s Caring Bridge page. Even though you likely won’t receive a response, know that your words are appreciated.
“I’m here when you need to talk about your child.”
People have a perception that cancer moms are tough — warriors for their children. They perceive us as having strength and grace, which we have to have for our child. But sometimes we need to talk and cry and express our fears to someone who will just listen and not give us empty assurances that “everything will be OK.” This is a tough conversation. If you offer to be a part of it, be sure you’re ready to hear it.
“Let me bring you a meal/help with laundry/run an errand for you. When is a good time?”
Everyone wants to help, but actions speak louder than words. Simply saying “what can I do to help?” has no value whatsoever, since often we have no idea what needs to be done. Our thoughts are consumed with treatments and medications, appointments and quality time with our child. If you are willing to do something, then just do it. Your help is valuable.
“Let me take your other children to the park/a movie/out for ice cream.”
So many times parents are consumed with their sick child while their other children feel neglected. When family and close friends would take our other sons and do something fun with them, it was not only a treat for them but a break for us.
More: The 8 uncomfortable topics I refuse to lie to my kids about
“How are you doing?”
I could talk all day about my son’s counts, new course of treatment, hair loss or side effects, but ask about me, and I would shut down. I thought I was fine. I was supposed to be fine. But I wasn’t fine. I was crumbling inside and needed someone to listen. And hug. Hugs are always nice.
“We’ve made a donation in your child’s name.”
Once your child has cancer, you’re forever a cancer warrior. Certain organizations, like Cure Search, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Make-A-Wish and Give Kids the World, will always have my gratitude and support. It humbles me and honors my child when someone spends valuable time or hard-earned money to support these organizations as well.
“How is your child doing/tell me about your child.”
Once cancer has touched your life through your child, it never goes away. Cancer will always be a significant part of our lives and something we think about every day. For a parent whose child’s treatment is over, the fear of recurrence or other effects always looms near. A parent who’s lost her child to the disease (like I did) appreciates knowing that her child is not forgotten.
If you don’t know what to say, or if cancer just makes you too sad and uncomfortable, you can always send a greeting card or gift card to show your support. Ultimately it’s much better than saying nothing at all.