The moment a child is diagnosed with cancer, a family’s life is completely changed. The initial shock
of the diagnosis can leave their parents and family feeling lost and confused, suddenly faced with an
uncertain future and the possibility of losing their child.
They may feel the loss of control, stress, and anxiety of what the unknown could bring. When a child is diagnosed, they may have to go to their nearest hospital for an extended stay and this could mean a drastic change in the family’s day-to-day lives.
If you are closely connected with or know a family whose child has been diagnosed with cancer, you
may want to offer your help and support. You may feel like you are overstepping or perhaps you are
waiting for the family to reach out. There is a big difference in how comfortable people feel about
offering help and asking for help.
It is often easier for people to offer help and support than it is to accept it. People naturally find it hard to ask for help, so don’t take this as a sign that they don’t need help if they haven’t directly reached out. They are in unchartered territory and will be trying to navigate their way around their child’s diagnosis so there may be reasons parents or families may not ask for help.
They may not know what they need
A child’s diagnosis turns a family’s world upside down. At the beginning, they often don’t fully
understand how their child’s diagnosis will affect their lives, and therefore may not know what they
need. They may be feeling a rollercoaster of emotions, with a million thoughts running through their
head and their sole focus is on their child. They may not know what they want or need immediately
after their child’s diagnosis so it may be hard for them to be specific or clear with the ways you can
Once the family understands what is happening with their child’s treatment, they may start to think
about the logistics of the rest of the family and how they may need external support. Remember, a
cancer diagnosis could mean years of treatment and families need support the entire time.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help as everyone will want to do something. Get them to cook, take your other children out, do grocery shopping, run errands. You just can’t do it ALL, as much as you want to.“
They may feel like they’re being a burden
Everyone leads busy lives and because they have a lot going on, parents and carers may feel like they
are being a burden on others by asking for help. They may not want to make anyone feel pressured
into helping them. They may feel like they’re intruding on your time. They may overthink a simple
thought and, in their mind, it becomes a huge thing.
They may see their vulnerability as a weakness
One of the hardest aspects when caring for a child with a cancer diagnosis is trying to get a handle
on the next steps. Feeling like they have no control over anything is something we often hear from
They may suddenly start struggling with finances or with their mental health for the first time. They may not want to ask for help because of the fear they might be seen as vulnerable and weak, when they feel they should be showing strength. There are some people whose stress response may be to have to control everything, so they don’t think to ask for help.
Keeping your offer of help or support simple and clear could be the difference between someone
accepting or declining.
There are times where you can just give help and support without offering it, if you know the family need it. Sharing your positive feelings about how it will make you feel to be able to help the family may help them to feel less emotionally exposed and more accepting of your support.
If you’re unsure how to help in a practical way, you could think about what you would need if you were in their situation. You might be able to help free up their time to focus on their child by
- Do a grocery shop
- Pick up or take their other kids to school and/or extra-curricular activities
- Walk and feed their pets
- Take their bins out
- Collect their mail
- Do a load of laundry
- Help keep the house clean
- Mowing their lawn
- Taking family members to medical appointments
Many families say that they are overwhelmed with offers of support around the time of diagnosis,
but these offers disappear as time goes on. If you can, try to help with smaller tasks over a longer
period rather than offering lots of support in the first few months.
You could offer personal support to the parents by:
- Going around and having a cuppa and chat
- A phone call, a friendly check-in can go a long way, and sometimes you may offer
normalcy to their day
- Sending a heartfelt message to let them know you’re thinking of them. It can be best to
avoid questions which require a response
There are people who might like to have someone they can talk to or have listen to them outside of
their partner or immediate family, others enjoy quality time with their extended family or friends,
and some are grateful for the practical support. There is no one size fits all. Everyone has different
ways of feeling supported.
Identifying where you can support the family from initial diagnosis to the end of treatment is
important, because circumstances will change and things which were important in the beginning
may be less important as time goes on. It’s important to acknowledge your own feelings around the
child’s cancer diagnosis so you are not burdening the family.