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Helping Families Dealing With Cancer: Do’s and Don’ts

  • Dr. Claire McCarthy
  • 9/12/2013 12:00:00 AM
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Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.

It’s Childhood Cancer Awareness month, and it got me thinking about how when we hear that someone we know has cancer, along with feeling scared and worried, what we usually feel is a desire to help.

But turning that desire into actual helping isn’t always as easy as we would like. That’s why I asked my friends and colleagues at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center to provide tips for those people who want to help—but aren’t quite sure how. Here are some Do’s and Don’t’s:


Reach out. Sometimes fear and worry can be paralyzing. We can get so worried about saying the wrong thing that we don’t say anything at all—leaving our friends feeling alone. So reach out. Send a text, an email, a card, a Facebook message; while talking on the phone or visiting can be helpful too, it’s often best to let the family schedule the call or visit. Don’t worry so much about what to say; “Thinking of you,” or “I am here to help” are fine.

When it comes to helping, think proactive and concrete. “Is there anything I can do?” is what we usually say. But sometimes people with cancer, or their families, are too overwhelmed to think of anything—or too hesitant to ask for favors. So offer something specific, like, “How about I bring by dinner for Tuesday?” or “I can mow your lawn—would Saturday be okay?”

Among the suggestions of a mother of a child who had leukemia was giving gift cards. Having a family member with cancer can cause real financial strain, and having gift cards for things like groceries, the drug store or the hardware store (she also really liked getting Starbucks cards!) can make a real difference.

Here are two other helping suggestions from Lisa Diller, MD, chief medical officer at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center:

  • Offer to be a note-taker. If you are close to the family, especially if you are comfortable with medical terminology, ask if they would like you to come to an appointment and take notes. Sometimes they are so overwhelmed and upset after a diagnosis to get all the details.
  • Give blood! Usually it doesn’t go to your friend, but it helps. A lot.

Remember that cancer affects the whole family. Sometimes babysitting other children—or just taking them to do fun things—helps tremendously. Caregivers need support, too—whether it’s a meal, a shoulder to cry on or a gift certificate for a massage, don’t leave them out.

Hang in there. There’s always a lot of energy for helping right after a diagnosis, but that energy can lessen over time—even though families are still dealing with cancer and its effect on their lives. So keep checking in. You might even consider setting a reminder on your phone or otherwise incorporating it into your life—that way it’s less likely you’ll lose track in the craziness of daily stuff—and regularly give a call or drop off a casserole or some homemade cookies (or a Home Depot or Starbucks gift card).


Be doom and gloom. Cure rates from cancer have gone way up (especially in childhood cancer), and even when it isn’t cured, people are living much longer, better lives after diagnosis than ever before. Hope is good, especially at the beginning.

Assume you know what the family needs. Every family is different, and you don’t always know what everyone else is doing. Maybe they are drowning in casseroles—but need someone to walk the dog. Offer specific ideas—but also ask, genuinely, what they would like.

Send articles or links about people who faced the same or similar diseases. “You can’t really know all the details, and it can set up the wrong expectations,” says Diller. “Your friends will get the information they need from the care team that really knows them.”

Here’s one more “Do” that I think is important…

Involve your children. We worry about scaring our children, and cancer can be scary. But by involving your children in helping, not only do you teach them compassion, you give them an important perspective. You teach them that no matter what happens, there is always something they can do, and always someone who will help.

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