With something as shocking and momentous as a child cancer diagnosis, friends often simply do not know what to say. They may be frightened of saying the wrong thing and causing more upset or they may find the whole situation just too upsetting. However, to say nothing at all will only make things worse for a family already devastated by the news. You cannot go wrong with the simple words, whether in person or via a text message: “I’m so sorry to hear this. I am here for you.” It will mean a lot.
Bring food to the hospital or home
Immediately following a cancer diagnosis, the child will have a prolonged period in hospital while they begin chemotherapy treatment, which may then be followed by treatment at home with intermittent care in hospital. Parents will often take turns staying with the child while caring for other siblings at home. It is a time of chaos and stress.
Our son Isaac was six weeks old when Yasmin was diagnosed at the age of two and we would not have managed without the support of both grandmothers who moved into our home for a short period of time. Early on, one friend cooked a batch of fresh-home cooked meals and dropped them at our home so that we would have something tasty and healthy to eat in among all the ready-meals, chocolate, crisps and hospital food. This was hugely appreciated and not something I would have felt able to ask somebody to do at the time.
Pay a visit
If you can visit do so. I have to admit that my husband and I have been disappointed by a couple of friends who disappeared in the two years since our daughter got sick. However, far more so, we have been overwhelmed by the support of many more friends, often people we barely knew when this began, who have been there every single step of the way, whether just as a shoulder to cry on or with much-needed practical help.
Dealing with a childhood cancer diagnosis can be isolating and lonely for parents, particularly if one or both have to give up work in order to care for their children. If you can visit do so. Check first to make sure it is a time when it is ok for the child on treatment to have visitors and bring your own kids around to entertain or come armed with sticker books and puzzles.
Some of our wonderful friends helped to make Yasmin’s 3rd birthday the most memorable day yet by dressing up as Wizard of Oz characters and creating Oz in our backyard while my husband’s photography colleagues organised an auction of some of their most celebrated photographs to raise money for charity in Yasmin’s name
Don’t ask, just do
People are generally useless at asking for help and the kind offer of “Do let me know if there is anything I can do?” is rarely taken up. So be proactive. Cook meals, take magazines, toys, games to the hospital, offer to babysit, or take the kids to the park, tidy your friend’s house while they are in the hospital.
Think what chores need doing and just do them. I have got a lot better at asking for help when on verge of a breakdown, but still often feel like I don’t want to put people out.
Be there months down the line
A childhood cancer diagnosis changes a family forever. We were deluged with texts, calls and messages of support in the weeks following diagnosis often at a time when I was completely unable to respond or take anything in. I was in shock. There were times when I was able to talk about Yasmin’s treatment and my fears for the future and others when I just needed a break from it all.
Although now, we appear to have got our lives back to normal and Yasmin has a great prognosis with the end of treatment in sight, a prolonged hospital admission means fraying nerves and a feeling that we cannot cope. The waves of fear and hopelessness return along with a need for emotional and practical support.
The treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is very long (two and a bit years for girls and three years for boys) The stress is not as intense as at the beginning but it has been there for a very long time and I need my friends and family just as much as I did in the beginning.”
Karen’s daughter Yasmin was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in August 2012 and will finish treatment this October.