How to Be the Friend a Cancer Family Needs

When your family is facing childhood cancer, the friends who go above and beyond make all the difference. But if you are that friend or family member, it can be hard to know what to do or say that will lighten some of the burden.

We asked families who have experienced childhood cancer to tell us about a time during their cancer journey when a friend or family member said or did just the right thing. Below are their responses, as well as the key takeaways if you’re looking for how to be the kind of friend a family facing cancer needs.

Take regular chores or tasks off their plate.

If you are able, choose one regular task that you can reliably perform for the family and offer to take care of it for them. It can be a huge gift to the family to not have to use their mental energy to coordinate these everyday tasks. Yard work, shoveling snow, pet-sitting or driving other children to and from activities are all great ideas.

“A friend of mine asked me if I needed any pet care while we were in the hospital. She cleaned the kitty litter box, took the dog out, fed the fish, etc. That was incredibly helpful and reassuring to us to know our beloved four-legged and finned babies were taken care of.”  – Janet

“I had a friend who would text me on the way to Costco or the grocery store and ask me right then what I needed. She must have bought all the toilet paper and milk for nine months.” – Lauren

“I had friends who banded together and set us up with housekeeping every two weeks for a while. Hubby was home with the big kid. Little man was about four hours away in Oakland getting treatment with me. Best. Idea. Ever.” – Nancy

“One of my coworkers took our dog to her house. We had been in the hospital for two nights when she called me and said, ‘I’m in the lobby. If you can bring me a key, I will go get Tucker and bring him home with me for however long you need.’ I remember tearing up because it just took something huge off my plate and I knew he would not feel abandoned. She took him multiple times over the next two years if we had a hospital stay that was more than overnight.” - Jane

Let them know you are there for them.

Simply checking in can let your friend know you haven’t forgotten about them. Many families facing cancer miss the sense of normalcy that they have now lost – if you can be a steady presence in their life, they will appreciate it.

“My high school baseball teammate sent me Facebook messages every Sunday morning, just checking in. We hadn’t been in touch in years, but we were connected through Facebook. He revealed several months in that he had lost his son right after childbirth. Regardless of the reason, just show up.” – Thomas

“One of the most thoughtful things my friend Anne did for me was to simply ask me straight out what I needed from her. Did I want her to check in with me often? Did I want company, or did I just want to be left alone? I so appreciated having the opportunity to just tell her what I needed.” – Laura

“We appreciated the friends who treated us the same. So many treated us like we were  super stars or heroes. Worse, some couldn’t look us in the eye at all because they didn’t know how to handle it. We had a few tried-and-true friends who always remembered who we were and treated us exactly the same. They remembered our love for humor and when it was appropriate we would still laugh and joke. Laughter truly is the best medicine.” – Julie

“There always seem to be times when your story gets ‘boring’ - stretches without ER visits, no upcoming surgeries, no big updates to report. What always meant the most was people who continued to reach out in these ‘boring’ times. Everyone is quick to jump when you’re first diagnosed or when something exciting happens, so the random, simple, ‘thinking of you’ texts really made me smile.” - Sarah

Remember the siblings.

When one child in the family has cancer, it can require all the parents’ attention, leaving siblings feeling left out or forgotten. If you’re able, offer to help out with siblings by taking them to do something special or making sure they know you’re thinking about them.

“Friends sent care packages to ALL of my children so they wouldn’t feel invisible during Anna’s ordeal that took all of my husband’s and my attention. It was truly amazing the support we received and it was all appreciated immensely.”  – Ruth

“A friend came over and took Zach’s brother out of the house to watch a classmate play football. Attention on the kids who are healthy was a big deal.” – Leah

“We had a friend who would drop everything anytime to come watch our children when we had to take Gabi to the hospital in the middle of the night. We had friends who were surrogate parents to our other kids when we had to miss their events. They would go in our stead and take pictures and video for us.” - Debbie

Use your personal talent to help the family in some way.

Are you familiar with medical terminology? Offer to accompany the family to appointments to take notes. Are you a good communicator? Volunteer to update a Facebook group or CaringBridge site to keep friends and family in the loop. Think about how you can use your skills to fill the family’s needs.

“One of my son’s favorite former teachers volunteered to home tutor him through fifth grade on the rare days that he was home from the hospital during treatment. She would run over to our house at the drop of a hat and never got upset when he was not up to lessons. Because of her, Max was able to remain a member of the school community and did not get left back. Her kindness and generosity meant the world to my wife and myself.” – Russell

“One day after a hospital stay, I came home to not only a clean house, but also a fridge stocked with food. My older sister had hired a service that took all the blankets we took back and forth to the hospital. They picked them up at my house, washed and folded them and brought them back smelling so good. My friends had cleaned my house and my cousin went to the store for me. Love and support would have been enough, but I will tell you, all of that saved me, too.” – Kara

“I have a friend whose daughter was diagnosed with cancer the same age Jennie was when she was diagnosed - she knew this road like the back of her hand. She knew to bring sheets from home for the hospital bed. She knew to bring big fluffy towels from home because hospital towels suck. To have had someone by my side that knew exactly what to expect was priceless.” - Kelly

Support Families Facing Childhood Cancer

Looking for more ways to support a family who is facing childhood cancer? Download our guide, "Beyond I'm Sorry - Supporting a Family Facing Cancer" for advice on what to write in a card, how to show you care and more.

Download the Guide