Imagine someone you love dearly – your child, parent, sibling, or another relative – being diagnosed with cancer. It’s hard to place yourself in that position, and to think about what you would do if it were to happen. What support would we need in place? What would we do if that were our family member?
– by Carrie Miller, LCSW / Talkspace Therapist
Childhood cancer is a topic that is close to my heart, as my now 6 year old nephew is a survivor of Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia. He was diagnosed at the age of 2. The moment that my sister and her husband got the news that “something isn’t right”, their hearts sank. They were terrified and had questions that the doctors could not yet answer for them; they were stuck in a hospital two hours away from home and had to leave another child with the grandparents to be there. The worst part was they were not sure about what came next. Calls went out to other family members, friends, and anyone else who could send support and offer a helping hand.
In times like these, when our worst nightmares come to fruition, what can others do to provide support to the family and friends of a loved one with cancer in the most practical way?
How can a therapist, extended family member, friend, doctor, or clergy member provide the most valuable support to those who are supporting their loved one during such a vulnerable time?
I can imagine that any parent who has a child (or loved one) diagnosed with cancer is feeling beyond terrified. A cancer diagnosis, especially for many children, often does not have a positive outcome.
Most people are more familiar with adult forms of cancer, and may not be aware of the fact that the “cure rate” or remission rate for childhood cancers is much lower. This has to do with the fact that research for childhood cancers is highly underfunded. The following is information I would like to share with you in regards to the number of diagnosed cases, the most common types of childhood cancers, and their survival rates.
The good news is that the survival rate has increased from 10% in 1965 to nearly 90% in 2015. However, for some types of childhood cancers the rates are much lower. That being said, the number of diagnosed cases has not declined in nearly 20 years, with roughly 43 children being diagnosed with cancer per day.
The causes of most childhood cancers are unknown, and they are not strongly linked to the environment or lifestyle choices, as it is with many adult cancers, which make them very difficult to treat.
As a reference, the following is some information on a few of the most common types of childhood cancers. Leukemia (cancers of the blood and bone marrow) accounts for 30% of all childhood cancers. Next, brain and central nervous system tumors make up about 26% of childhood cancers. Then, Neuroblastoma, cancer that starts in early forms of nerve cells, makes up about 6% of all childhood cancers. Lastly, Lymphoma which is a cancer that begins in cells of the immune system called lymphocytes and causes lymph nodes to swell – in particular, non-Hodgkin Lymphoma accounts for about 5% of childhood cancers.
How Can You Provide Support?
The path can be lonely for those who have to walk it alone or with limited support systems.
There are things that they will need that, before their child or loved one was diagnosed with cancer, they may have never thought twice about. The laundry, for example, or help preparing meals. Something as simple as having 10 extra minutes to play with their child, who is not sick in the hospital, can be of immeasurable benefit.
Too often, parents are also isolated within the confines of the hospital, so that their child can receive the much needed medical attention for long periods of time. This can become quite lonely. So, how can you provide support?
If you are a friend or an extended family member, you can offer to visit your family in the hospital if you have some extra time. Small gestures of support like this are especially meaningful and appreciated.
You could also ask if you can provide meals for their home. Often times, when you are caring for a loved one with cancer, you spend many days and nights in the hospital and don’t have the time or energy to cook meals. This kind gesture can be especially helpful.
Offer to do a load of laundry for them. These are also things that tend to go undone when the family is caring for someone who is very ill. It might seem silly to ask, but the extra support would be very much appreciated.
Just be there with them. If you are wondering to yourself, “What do I say to them? How can I possibly say anything helpful or supportive?” It’s okay. There are no magic words you can utter during these times that will ease the pain and anxiety they feel. Your presence and support speaks volumes and means more than any words you could offer.
Social workers can offer support by assisting family members with tasks such as connecting with support groups, financial assistance (i.e. Medicade, Social Security Disability), or other supportive services, like music, movement, talk therapy, or art therapy if needed.
It’s the little things that count: bringing them a home-cooked meal, donating a gift card if finances are tight, offering to sit with them at the hospital so they don’t feel isolated, asking if they need help caring for their other children, or letting them know that you are keeping them in your thoughts and prayers.
These things mean a lot to families who feel depleted and frightened of the uncertainty that lies ahead. Simply extending your hand, and being with them in their most difficult moments, without saying a word, can be just the support and assurance that they need.
There are numerous ways to provide support to family members who have a loved one with cancer, and these suggestions are a good starting point!
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