How to Help Friends with Children cope with Cancer

When a close friend or relative with children is diagnosed with cancer, it is natural for you to want to support them as they face their challenge and cope with cancer. Looking out for someone close to you can mean anything from being at the other end of the phone, through to physically caring for them.

Yet it can be difficult to know what a friend or family member really needs when they face a cancer diagnosis. Similarly, it’s often difficult for someone who is ill to pick up the phone and directly ask for help – either they don’t want to be demanding, or they aren’t sure themselves what it is they need.

Here are a few ideas that we hope will help you to be the support that your loved one needs; from making sure they have enough time to relax, to ensuring their family is supported, these tips are a great place to start.

1. Make them feel near
Distance can feel like an impassable boundary when someone close to you is dealing with cancer. You may want to be there in person, but unavoidable commitments and other hurdles may mean that it just isn’t possible. It’s important to remember, however, that you can still support your friend. Perhaps try organising the occasional treat or useful gift to be sent to them, such as a vegetable box or luxurious smellies, or a quiet activity that the children might enjoy playing with their parent such as a jigsaw or colouring book. It’s also a great idea to consider offering them a few days at your house, if possible with their children. Perhaps make the trip into a mini-break for them! Remember to make it simple for them to take you up on the offer by collecting them yourself and having a few days of pampering together. Don’t plan an intense agenda of activities, just some time to relax and be together with no other commitments than being in each other’s company.

2. Help support their family
Supporting their family is also a staple method of helping your friend cope. They may be worrying about those who are caring for them, such as their spouse or other relatives. Your friend may worry about added responsibilities and stress that their being unwell has caused. Keep in contact with the family of your friend and make sure that they are also coping. This way, if they need any help too you can be there to offer it. It will also help to stop your friend from worrying about their welfare, as they know they have someone else offering support.

3. Caring for children or babysitting while they recover
Looking after or babysitting your friends children for the occasional evening or hospital appointment can be a huge help. It is, however, important that you bear in mind the children may have questions they want to ask – whether it is ‘why are you looking after me today?’, or ‘what’s the matter with Mum?’. Similarly, you may want to explain to your own children why someone is ill. Talking to children about cancer can seem like a very difficult and almost frightening experience – you don’t want to scare the child, but you don’t want to hide too much from them either. Some points to remember when talking to children about cancer are:

Children are very literal, so be careful about using euphemisms such as ‘they have a lump’ or ‘they have bad things in their blood’.
Work together to decide on the terminology you’re going to use and how you’ll approach the subject. This way there won’t be too many words or phrases that could lead to confusion for children.
Explain that the person is feeling unwell, tired and sore. These will be feelings that the child can associate with.
Make links with when they (the child) felt unwell so they can connect this experience to a concrete one they have already had, for instance when they had a tummy bug. Remind them that they got better when someone looked after them and they perhaps had some medicines to take.
Don’t expect children to remember everything you’ve told them. They will probably continue to ask questions, as they often need to revisit conversations to make sense of them.

4. Encourage your loved one to get a little extra help.
Employing someone to help look after their children, with the school run or for a few hours during the day, can offer a chance for respite. Remember this kind of help is ideal to complement the role of a parent – it’s all about balancing the responsibilities that they need help with, rather than overtaking them or usurping their role. Employing a temporary housekeeper may also be an idea, they can help with some of the more physical strains of cleaning the house – such as hoovering and cleaning windows.

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