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10 ways to help a mom or dad friend with cancer

Oct. 2, 2019
10 ways to help a mom or dad friend with cancer

There’s never a great time for a cancer diagnosis, but it can be especially tough when you have young children at home. It’s a life-altering diagnosis at a time when things are already a whirlwind, and parents with cancer need all the help they can get.  

So how do you support a friend or someone you care about with cancer, particularly when they have young kids at home? Meal trains, child care and just showing up can go a long way. Here are 10 things you can do to help someone with cancer. 

1. Be proactive

Don’t wait for the parent to ask you for help, says Ishwaria Subbiah, assistant professor in palliative care at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. They might be embarrassed to admit they’re struggling or feel weird asking others to do things for them. Instead, she recommends reaching out to them or their partner to ask directly what you can do to lighten their load. 

Rather than saying, “Please let me know what I can do” or “I’m here if you need me,” try asking specific questions that assume they could use help like “What is one thing I can do for you today?” or “If I made you some freezer meals, what types of foods would you be able to eat?” If you’re out running errands, ask what you could pick up for them. And if you’re taking your own children to the park, offer to swing by and pick up their kids, too.  

If they say no, respect their decision, Subbiah says, but don’t be afraid to try again in the future. 

2. Organize the helpers 

There might be a lot of people who offer to help, and figuring out who should do what and when can be a big job. Usually a partner, close friend or relative steps in to organize the helpers. But if no one is stepping up, volunteer to do the job. 

When Michigan mom Jamie Kastelic was going through breast cancer treatment in her early 30s, her mom and husband largely filled the role of managing offers to help. 

“You know, you're sick, and there are so many things going through your mind at that point,” Kastelic says. 

Having someone else take on the role of coordinator helped free her up to focus on her treatment and her kids. 

In addition to coordinating things like meal trains and child pickups, designated organizers can also help by posting updates on how things are going via sites like CaringBridge or Lotsa Helping Hands, sparing the family from having to have the same conversations over and over again. 

3. Protect the routine

A cancer diagnosis is a huge change, but you can help minimize the disruption by finding out the family’s routine and doing what you can to protect it as much as possible. 

For example, you could offer to sit with the parent during treatment so their partner can pick up the kids at the normal time or attend soccer matches. Or you could offer to bring the kids to their regular activities, like church or Boy Scouts, so they don’t miss out on the things they enjoy doing.  

“When you make treatment easier on the kids, you make it easier on the parents,” says Sara Olsher, a mom and cancer survivor in Santa Rosa, California, as well as the founder of Mighty + Bright

Olsher says she had breast cancer when she was 34. Her daughter was 6 years old, and she appreciated when others helped with regular pickups and drop-offs to keep things as normal as possible for her daughter. 

4. Take care of daily life tasks

It takes a lot to keep a household running. Taking on some of the small household tasks — like meals or mowing — can free families up to focus on treatment or spending quality time together. 

“I was too sick and often too tired to prepare home-cooked meals for my daughter,” says Alexea Gaffney, a physician and breast cancer survivor in Stony Brook, New York. “[Meal trains] took something off of the huge list of tasks that had to be done around our home… It was so nice to have one less thing to do and eat healthy and delicious meals specially prepared for us.”

Some examples of things you can offer to handle around the house include: 

  • Bringing meals.

  • Grocery shopping.

  • Cleaning. 

  • Laundry. 

  • Mowing the lawn.

  • Gardening. 

  • Pet sitting or dog walking. 

  • Running errands, like getting the dry-cleaning or going to the post office.

5. Watch the kids

Cancer treatment can leave parents with little energy to keep up with busy kids. Offering to help watch the kids so the parent can nap or have a day to themselves can be a great way to support them, Subbiah says. 

Just be sure to watch kids on their terms, not yours. While some families might prefer you pick up the kids and take them to the zoo or to your house for a play date, others might want to keep them closer to home. 

When Kastelic got her cancer diagnosis at age 33, she was worried that her cancer would keep her from watching her kids grow up. So when people offered to watch her children, she preferred they watch them at her house. 

“I wanted to be able to spend as much time with my kids as possible,” she says. 

Before suggesting a location to watch the children, she recommends asking the family what their preference would be. 

A great time to watch the children is during doctor’s appointments, according to Kastelic. During the first few months especially, she says, she had to go to the hospital at least once a week, often with her toddler in tow. She says that having someone help watch her rambunctious son during the appointments would have been a huge help.  

6. Raise money

Medical bills associated with cancer treatment can really stack up, even when families have medical insurance. Two in five cancer patients with private insurance and a quarter of those with public insurance (like Medicaid or Medicare) still spend more than 20% of their income on health care, according to Ryan Nipp, a physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center who presented the information at the 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting.

Between the co-pays, prescriptions and lost wages, some families might need a little extra support to make ends meet financially, and that can be really stressful for them, Subbiah says. Hosting a fundraiser or creating a GoFundMe site (with their permission, of course) won’t take away all the stress they might be feeling, but it could help, she says.  

7. Offer to chauffeur 

Young families often have busy schedules, and an extra set of wheels can sometimes be as helpful as another pair of hands. 

“Parents of my daughter’s best friend picked her up and dropped her home from school every day,” Gaffney says. “This was a treat for my daughter who got to ride to school with her friend, and it didn’t significantly change a schedule she had grown accustomed to.” 

For Joe Bakhmoutski — a dad in Melbourne, Australia, who had cancer when his son was just 3 — the most helpful thing anyone did for him was offer to drive him to and from the hospital and stay with him during appointments. 

“The only person to offer this was a friend whose wife died from cancer, and he knew how crucial that is,” Bakhmoutski says.

8. Include them

Show up for the hard things. Celebrate successes. Continue to invite them to things even if you don’t think they’ll be able to make it. 

“Cancer and its treatment can be alienating for so many reasons, so I was so grateful when people continued to extend invites to us or ask to come over and hang,” Gaffney says. “Even when I couldn’t get out, it was so nice and thoughtful of friends to bring their children to our home so the kids could play in the house or back yard while they supervised, allowing me to relax and enjoy the company of a friend.”

9. Think of the small things

Sometimes it’s not the big gestures that will make the biggest impact, but the small ones. Olsher’s friends, for example, brought her lemon candies to help with the bad taste in her mouth from chemo and paid for her to get her hair cut short before it fell out. Kastelic’s friends bought and wrapped a bunch of presents for her children so that they could have something exciting and new when things got hard. At Subbiah’s clinic, they make a point of celebrating birthdays. 

“Everyone on the team wishes them [a happy birthday], and we find ways for them to celebrate, whether it's a cake from the cafeteria or whatever it may be,” Subbiah says. 

They do the same for the patient’s family members, too, whenever they can. She says the small act can mean a lot to families going through cancer treatment. 

10. Make it about them

Whatever you choose to do for your friend or relative, remember who you’re really doing it for. While you might want updates on how they’re doing or to spend some quality time with them, they might just need to rest. 

“Chemo is so tiring, and I could only handle 30-to-40-minute visits,” Olsher says. 

Her mom helped by ensuring visitors didn’t stay too long. 

Pay close attention to any cues they might be sending you, and don’t overstay your welcome. If you’re dropping off a meal, don’t expect to stay for a lengthy chat. And if you’re offering to do laundry, maybe pick it up rather than do it at their home. 

But perhaps most importantly, put their needs first. 

“Most people offer [to] help on their terms: ‘Can we bring a casserole? Mow your lawn?’ — that sort of thing,” Bakhmoutski says. “But what helped was the few people who asked, ‘What can I do for you right now?’ It made it about us, not them.”

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