For parents, learning their child has cancer is probably the most difficult, heart-wrenching thing to hear. And, it’s happening more often than you think. After accidents, cancer is the second-leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14, according to the American Cancer Society.
“It’s likely you know someone whose child has cancer,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hord, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “We treat hundreds of children each year at Akron Children’s Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders. We not only offer clinical treatment for children and teens with all types of cancer, we also take a very personal approach in helping families adjust to a new normal.”
In light of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (September), Akron Children’s Hospital asked a dozen members of the Parent Advisory Council, advocates for parent involvement programs, how others can help parents of cancer patients. Many people often are unsure how to communicate with parents of cancer patients, especially when their child was just diagnosed. The hospital compiled a do’s and don’ts list of how people should interact with parents after immediate diagnosis and during treatment.
- Ignore the stigmas. Kids with cancer aren’t weak and they’re not frail. You can touch and talk to them.
- Teach children. Instead of allowing kids to stare at another child with a bald head, use it as a teaching moment – explain to your own kids that the child is battling cancer.
- Know there’s no magic word. Parents are in a fog after learning their child has cancer. Remind parents of their child’s positive qualities and be encouraging.
- Show empathy. Tell parents their child is brave. Hold parents’ hands and let them cry when they need it.
- Be supportive. Set up a meal train, help with other children, mow the lawn, clean their house. Whether big or small, offer to help.
- Respect privacy. Sometimes parents need rest or want company. Call first before showing up at their home or hospital.
- Tell parents they’re top of mind. It’s comforting to know people are praying for or thinking of them.
- Be present often. Companionship and help occurs the most in the beginning stages. Be brave enough to stay the entire journey.
- Lift their spirits. Decorate for holidays. Even when parents are home from the hospital, they’re too preoccupied to decorate their home.
- Change the subject. Talk to parents about life outside of cancer.
- Be overbearing. Parents need time to decompress or have a good cry. Be aware of when to give parents and family the space they need. Their main goal is to take care of their child.
- Ask too many questions. Some have asked, “Are they sure?” or “Have you tried essential oils?” Too much noise and constantly asking about their child can be overwhelming and annoying.
- Parents, like their children, want the truth. Be honest and upfront. Don’t use phrases of false hope (e.g., it’s going to be okay).
- Say you understand. Unless you have a child who’s battled cancer, you can’t relate.
- Let parents go at it alone. Distractions help keep parents’ minds off of things, but be careful not to be forceful.
- Fundraise without consent. Talk to the family before arranging a large fundraiser so they are not surprised.
- Forget the siblings. Small gestures of goodwill for brothers or sisters remind them you understand their life changed too.
- Lose hope. Be calm and loving, and portray optimism.
- Push families. Parents often don’t know what help they want or need. Try not to pressure them to think of something.
- Be a constant voice. Find ways to simply and quietly make the family’s life better.
“Childhood Cancer Month is an opportunity to generate awareness for the disease and shed light on how cancer affects the entire family,” said Dr. Hord. “Tips on how to best interact with parents will hopefully take the guesswork out of knowing how and when to do the right thing to give the necessary support.”
The support staff at the Showers Family Center–which includes child psychologists, child life specialists, social workers, and a patient navigator–are available to help with situations not covered in the above lists. They can be reached by calling 330-543-8580.