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What to say to parents whose child has been diagnosed with cancer  

Below is a list of helpful vs unhelpful things you can say to a person or family whose child is diagnosed with cancer: 

Discovering that a friend’s child has been diagnosed with cancer can be an incredibly difficult experience, one that is hard to imagine and comprehend the shock and disbelief that such a thing could happen to their child.  

When a family is faced with a childhood cancer diagnosis, it can feel like their world has been shattered. They may experience overwhelming feelings of stress as they try to figure out how to cope with the situation. Their primary concern becomes the health and future of their child, which fills them with worry and fear.  

It can be difficult for others to understand what it feels like for the family experiencing the devastation of childhood cancer diagnosis. It can be even more challenging to start a conversation or how to offer support. It is helpful when friends and family members provide a comforting presence and practical help. Even if the family does not respond, showing or expressing consistent care and support is still very important.   

Acknowledging how difficult this experience has been for the person and family can provide comfort that they are understood. It can be difficult to know what to say and how to say it. Approaching this mindfully can show your support without being dismissive or avoiding the topic. 

Here is a list of helpful vs unhelpful things you can say to a person or family whose child is diagnosed with cancer: 

Don’t sayDo say
“I Know how you must be feeling, it was so hard when my mother was diagnosed with cancer” 
 
(this may show a lack of understanding when a child is diagnosed with cancer. Everyone’s experience with cancer is unique and different) 
“This sounds really difficult.” 
“I can see you are going through a lot right now” 
 
(Each person experiences a cancer diagnosis differently) 
“You’ll be okay” or “don’t worry”.
 
This may come across dismissive.
“How are you doing today?”  
 
“Can I bring you dinner or help out with some cleaning? 

“I wish I knew what to say and sometimes I might get it wrong. I know I can’t make it better, but I am here for you” 
(this space allows for sharing how they’re truly coping) 
 
(Providing a suggestion or two can help clarify their needs amidst the chaos)
 
“You’re so brave and strong.”
 
This may be minimising their true feelings.
“I know you don’t have a choice and have to show up every day to face this, but if I can make any of it easier, I want to be able to do that for you” 
 
(validating the difficulty of their experience and assuring them of your concern for their wellbeing)
“You’ll get through this” 
 
This can feel invalidating.
“It sounds like the ground keeps shifting”. 
 
This shows your effort to comprehend their perspective.
“What stage cancer is it?”
 
Trying to understand stages doesn’t give cancer a range from easy to hard. Stage is a barometer for the doctor.
“How has the process been for you? I heard it can be confusing and overwhelming.”  
 
This indicates your genuine interest in their coping process and your desire to gain a deeper understanding of their experiences.
“Have you looked into other alternative treatment, remedies?” 
 
Trust their healthcare team and respect their choices.
“Would you like to talk about how your child is doing as well a yourself?” 
 
This shows respect and sincere interest in understanding their experiences.
“You can celebrate now that treatment has finished.” 
 
The worry of cancer does not stop after treatment. They may continue to have worries with upcoming scans, bloods and fear of relapse.
“You’ve been on such a journey, I’m here to support you as you begin this new normal.” 
 
This conveys validation and reassurance of your ongoing support, regardless of what the future may hold.
“You must be looking forward to everything going back to normal?” 
 
This may minimise the tremendous challenge and impact cancer has had on them. 
“I don’t want to assume how you are feeling about treatment finishing. Would you like to talk about it?” 
 
Offering a listening ear and dedicating time demonstrates your genuine concern and interest in understanding their thoughts and feelings.
“You need to stay positive!”
 
This can invalidate their emotions and make them feel guilty for expressing true feelings.
“It is okay to feel however you are feeling. There are no rules and whatever your feeling, is understandable.”
 
This creates a safe and comforting environment for discussing feelings.

Navigating the shock and devastation of a childhood cancer diagnosis is a journey filled with uncertainty and fear. For families facing this unimaginable reality, the support of friends and relatives can make a world of difference. By offering a listening ear, choosing words of comfort carefully, and providing practical assistance, we can create a safe and comforting space for those affected by this difficult journey. Let’s stand together, offering empathy, understanding, and unwavering support to those in need. 

For more information and advice, contact our childhood cancer support team

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