5 ways to help parents of kids with cancer

For the last three years, I have been asked fairly regularly, “I know a parent whose child has/was just diagnosed with cancer, how can I support them?”  

I love it.

I mean I don’t have a brilliant answer or anything (and no, I don’t say “buy them my book” because that’s all types of skeezy), but I appreciate when people are thoughtful about helping. They want to help with a issue that they themselves have never experienced, so they know they can’t always guess the needs, so they do research. That’s just awesomeness right there. Intentional thoughtfulness.

And hey, if my son having cancer makes me a tiney tiny part of that...just someone they know who has been in it that they can ask. I am honored.

In response, I decided to write it in a blog post for any other inquiring minds. I will add the disclaimer that it really depends on where in the process the family is, what the diagnosis is, where they live, and who they are. This is not a for sure home run, but here is some insight to what I found was the most valuable for us and some other people I know.

1. Gift cards for food and travel. Gift cards for grocery stores and restaurants around the hospital they are getting treatment at (they’ll spend lots of time there), gas or airline cards for travel. Also, chemo and treatments can come with a new diet for the patient, which can get costly. It’s amazing how it all add up.

2. Find them resources. When we were in the hospital right after my son was diagnosed, a beautiful cousin of mine asked “what do you need?” . I had no clue, I was about to bring a baby post-chemo with no idea what to do. So, this amazing cousin, she got online and tried to find out. There wasn’t much out there for taking care of cancer babies but she found an amazon.com list for pediatric cancer patients, and as I arrived home there were items from that list on my doorstep.

There are also numerous organizations out there to help with specific needs of cancer patients and their families. It’s hard to know all of them. So if the family does have a need, maybe do the research for them, and find the organizations and programs they could quality for. Let them know about support groups you come across or ebooks you downloaded. Get it all organized, and just send in a email for their reference. Some pediatric oncology departments have a kick butt social worker on staff to help with some of this stuff, some don’t. If this is a need, it’s an easy fix.

Here is a place to start:

My favorite local organization: Keaton Raphael Memorial, they do a great job at actually meeting needs for the individual families and not just throwing a bunch of toys at you and saying "good luck!" They actually walk beside patients families during this time. 

My favorite national organization: Jessie Rees Foundation, also known as the Joy Jar people. This is organization does, among other things, have a program that sends children and their siblings these Joy Jars that just provide a smile for kids. They come at seemingly random times but they really do bring joy. I can't tell you how much you need those smiles during that time. They also send resources, and constant messages of NEGU (Never Ever Give Up).  

3. Step in and offer to do the basic chores, or hire someone to. With everything going on, basic household maintenance really ends up on the last of the to do list. All of your energy is going into supporting your child, remembering medications and treatment schedules, answering family questions, and keep the rest of your family members together.  Doing laundry, mowing the lawn, and scrubbing toilets is less than important, but when your child’s immunity tanks, some of that becomes incredibly necessary.

When we were in the hospital for a week (the week I mentioned earlier), another family member offered to hire a house cleaner to come in and get my house ready for me to bring home my sick son. We hired a friend, who brought in a team of other friends, and did way more than she was hired to. When I came home, terrified of taking care of this baby who was throwing up biohazardous puke, and my house was cleaner than I ever could do it myself...I can’t tell you what it felt like, other than I cried. A lot.

Hiring a cleaner, or just offering to pick up their laundry and return it clean and folded, is huge. As we started coming back to life, I noticed our horribly neglected backyard was un-playable for my three-year old who really could use a backyard to play in. A dear friend, heard my concern off-handedly, and came over and spent hours cleaning it up for me. He did a basic chore but it was a big deal for me.

Offer to pick up the other children in the family to take them to school, or fun outings. Help with writing thank yous or organize medical paperwork if that’s more your skill set. I’m sure there is lots you can do, if you think about it. Just remember, the goal is to make their lives easier. Even if something doesn’t make sense to you (i.e. “don’t wear lotion when you come over!” or “no one is allowed in the house”) try to be understanding and work around it.

4. Spread their message (if they want you to*). If they have a fundraiser, share it. If they have a gofundme.com site, then share it, promote it. If they have a particular cause or message they want to share with the world, spread it. It’s simple. Just sharing with your friends gives them a bigger platform for fundraising, educating, or whatever it is that they want to voice. When you have to humble yourself, asking strangers for money, it’s emotionally hard enough without having to figure out publicity, public relations, making fliers, and how to generally get people to help you out. Picking up some of that slack goes a big way.

During one of our hospital stays I found out that parents there needed toothpaste, toothbrushes, hair brushes, food and basic necessities. I found out that the number one need that is not donated for patients is chapstick. At a friend’s urging, I put out a request on Facebook that if anyone wanted to donate, I’d be putting together a couple toiletry kits. People shared the request. And they shared it. I had a humongous response. Second graders made Christmas cards for patients, a family I didn’t know packed over 60 drink packets, 12 blankets and tons of supplies randomly showed up my door. It was earth shatteringly generous and overwhelming in the best way possible. All because people shared my post. I felt so loved, so cared for, so hopeful because all these people were willing to join me in something that meant so much to me, in a time I needed it most.

*Don’t share publicly their struggle or situation unless they give you permission. It may seem like a loving act, but depending on where the people are, publicizing their pain just may make it worse.

5. Money for copays and time off work. I know money is a hard one, but it’s a real need. We have amazing insurance coverage with co-pays usually in the $5–25 range and maybe $100 for hospital overnight stay, but some of the bad months would have cost $5,000 just in copays. That’s not counting bills the insurance won’t pay, travel, normal life, furniture and medical supplies, etc.  

But if you can’t donate, maybe offer to host a fundraiser for the family or donate time to helping them with a fundraiser they are already doing.

A family member of one of my cousins heard our story. She rallied her neighbors to do a garage sale, and without us knowing raised money us. Then, when she had me over to lunch, she presented me with some much needed relief. There was no obligation on my part, she did it all herself, and it was such a blessing. I can’t even tell you.

Whatever you decide to do just make sure you do something, make sure you respect the family’s wishes and comfort, and just do it out of love. You got this.