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Helping a Family Facing Cancer

Tips and ideas to support families going through cancer treatment from somebody who has been there.

I wrote this piece back in 2015 in the midst of my husband’s treatment for blood cancer. I have left it, for the most part unedited as the rawness and sense of what we needed at the time really does come through.

Read the advice. Heed the advice but remember that every family’s journey is different.

Written in 2015...

Ever since Ian’s diagnosis in September 2014 we have been on the receiving end of so much help and kindness which has been amazing! We have also had a number of people say that they haven’t known how to be there. So here are 10 ways to help a family like us.

1) Stick around.

Dear reader, I can’t begin to tell you the joy and comfort that some of our friends have been to us. Hugs, kind words, caring phone call, texts…the list goes on. I know that there are people I can phone at midnight to cry with and people who will celebrate mini milestones. We’ve had a friend travel two hours to share a much needed costa coffee, somebody lent Ian a games console for hospital trips, we’ve been blessed with gifts in the post from secret friends. The love of these people has been the biggest blessing.

The other side of that coin though is the friends who suddenly became great magicians and seemingly disappeared. (And dear reader, commenting on Facebook status’ and ‘liking’ posts is not ‘being there,’ at least send a private message!) The sadness of realising that some of our friendships haven’t been deep enough to withstand cancer has been painful and confusing and for me, very challenging to forgive.

Dear Reader, if a friend of yours is in a similar boat to us, please don’t vanish. Even if you don’t know what to say, acknowledging your struggle to them will be appreciated and seen as an honest and successful attempt at being the friend who sticks around when the going is tough.

2) Take the kids out.

Our daughter, affectionately known as ‘Little Bear’ is wonderful. She is funny, energetic, talkative and kind. But she is also 18 months old and as such can be exhausting! If I have spent the day with her by the evening I just want to flop on the sofa and watch back to back ‘how I met your mother’ and eat ice cream. But when Ian is in hospital having treatment, I have don’t always have the time to stop—Ian does so much around the house that when he isn’t there, I spend my evenings doing what he would do in the days.

By giving a parent a morning or an afternoon ‘off’ you are freeing them up to get on with shopping, cleaning, visiting their loved one in the hospital AND at the same time, ensuring that their child is feeling valued, cared for and treated. Obviously if you don’t know the child very well or haven’t seen them for a number of months this might not be the best offer to make—the child is already adjusting to lots of new scenarios and people, but if you are a regular visitor to the house or see the child at a group each week, this would be such a blessing to a thinly spread parent.

3) Offer help, but be specific.

“Let me know if there is anything I can do to help…” Great! We need the bathroom refitted!

Dear Reader, help is indeed needed when the love of your life is undergoing chemotherapy or any invasive treatment. But please be specific with what you feel you can do. One lovely lady has offered to do our washing for us whilst Ian is in hospital which is brilliant! I am awful at getting washing done. Offering to cut the grass once a fortnight, even popping over to put the bin out once a week—to know that one job is taken care of on a regular basis is a massive help, plus you’ll be doing something you are good at which is much easier for everybody in the long run.

4) Check before cooking.

Chances are if somebody is going through or has just completed cancer treatment, there is going to be a long list of foods they can and can’t eat and, in some cases, how the food is prepared is really important. When Ian is in the middle of a treatment time (which goes beyond the completion of his hospital stay) he can’t eat any food that has been cooked then frozen, he can’t eat food that has been prepared in a kitchen where animals can be found (even if your cat is super clean).

The rest of the family can eat food you’ve prepared, but alas that means that somebody still has to prepare a second meal. Just check first—sometimes having somebody show up with dinner has been exactly what we have needed!

5) Offer your services as a driver.

Dear reader, let me paint a picture of one of my weeks this month:

  • Take Ian to hospital (80 mile round trip)
  • Take Little Bear to my parents (100 mile round trip)
  • Visit Ian (as above)
  • Go see little bear (as above)
  • Visit Ian (as above)
  • Collect Little Bear (as above)

That’s 554 miles in total!

Remove the simple expense of petrol from this marathon week, it is going to be exhausting and potentially lonely time. But this isn’t an unusual reality for a ‘cancer family.’

Dear reader, if you can drive, and you have time—offer your friend a lift. Don’t assume you will be visiting in the hospital, you might have to sit in Starbucks and wait, in fact, I would suggest insisting that you will wait for them in the food court. Your friends will thank you for making it so easy.

6) Be hygiene aware.

Chemotherapy tanks the immune system, leaving the patient open to life threatening illnesses. By being hygiene aware you can help keep your friend alive. Showering saves!

WASH, WASH, WASH YOUR HANDS!!! Skin is the biggest carrier of germs and bacteria. But did you know Dear Reader that antibacterial hand wash only kills 99 percent of germs if you lather up for 30 seconds before washing it off with hot water? No, I didn’t ether.

Depending on what type of cancer your friend has, you have to be super careful being around them if you yourself are under the weather. From our own experience, Ian can’t be near anybody who has a cold—a cold for you, a life threatening dose of pneumonia for him. Also be aware of who you have been in contact with—if you’ve been around somebody who is unwell, give is 48 hours before visiting.

Your basic check—48 hour of health for me and those I’ve been in contact with, shower, wash wash wash hands and just use your common sense.

7) Don’t fish for information.

If somebody in a ‘cancer family’ tells you they are ok, they are fibbing. Let them fib. Sometimes we like to forget or pretend that everything is normal. And, this is harsh Dear Reader, but we might simply not want to tell you—you might not be our ‘go to person’ to open up to. Please respect that. If something major happens, you will know about it.

8) Be sensitive to tight finances.

Treatment costs, Petrol costs, hospital parking costs, the expense of buying new clothes when chemo makes Ian drop weight really fast costs, childcare costs (even if it’s nanny, we have to get to nanny’s house), lots of fresh fruit and veg, cleaning products—it’s expensive. And not everybody is eligible for funds or support. So yes, we would love to spend time with you, but maybe, instead of going out for dinner—could we have a night in?

I am not playing the world's smallest violin and crying into a tin of cold baked beans here. We are lucky that Ian’s salary has continued and that he had critical life cover. We have to be a bit careful (but who doesn’t?) but not everybody is that lucky—chances are your friends are worrying about finances, ether in the here and now, or in the long term and going out for coffee simply breaks the budget.

9) Don’t send good wishes or vibes.

I hate cards that say, ‘Sending good wishes or vibes out into the universe.’ How is that going to help?

At least send chocolate along with the wishes...

10) Keep asking how they are feeling.

Just because the treatment has finished, just because everything seems to have returned to normal, don’t believe for one minute that your ‘cancer family’ is now back to ‘normal.’ They will need help and support for a long time to come as they grapple with all that they have been through. This links us back beautiful to my original point—be there Dear Read. Just be there.

What ways have you found helpful as a family effected by cancer, or as a friend of one of those families?

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