In 2009, my husband and I received the worst news that parents could possibly hear: our five-year-old son had cancer. Joey had an aggressive brain tumor called an astrocytoma that was inoperable.
Now I am quite frequently asked what someone can do or say when they find out a friend’s child has cancer. I wish I didn’t have experience in this matter, but unfortunately I do.
It can be tough to know what to say to a parent who is facing a child’s health crisis. Every person is comforted by different words and actions. Here is a guide on a few things not to say and what to say instead.
1. “He’ll be okay.” This sounds supportive; but the fact is no one knows this for sure. Even if the cancer is one of the more treatable forms, your friend is literally fearing for her child’s life right now.
What to say instead: “You must be so scared. I’m here to talk anytime you need someone to listen.”
2. “I can’t believe how well you are handling this/I could never do what you’re doing/I’m so upset that I can’t stop worrying about you.” It is so upsetting and tragic when a child is diagnosed with cancer. Often people can’t – and don’t want to – imagine what they would do if it were their child. Your friend is really trying hard to pull herself together and be strong.
What to say instead: “I admire how you’re handling this with such grace. If you need someone to lean on, I’m here.” Maybe offer to come to some appointments with her or to sit with her child while she takes a break. It will help you understand just exactly what she is going through and see that when you love a child, you can do anything for him.
3. “God has a plan/There is a reason for everything/I will pray for a miracle.” My husband and I were both raised Catholic, but this is not the God in whom we believe. A god who would make a five-year-old child suffer needlessly just to prove a point or give his parents a reason for something is not a god I want to worship. Religion and prayer became a sticky point for us during Joey’s illness and after his death, particularly since we knew that 100% of cases like his were fatal. This is definitely not the time to impart your religious beliefs on someone else.
What to say instead: “I am praying for you” or “I will pray for strength and healing for your child.”
4. “I heard a story about someone with this type of cancer, and they were cured.” When people said this to us, they were always referring to an adult they knew with a brain tumor. Brain tumors act very differently in children than they do adults. Plus, not all types of tumors are made up of the same cells or are in the same location. Without knowing the exact biology of someone’s cancer cells, you cannot make this claim.
What to say instead: “I realize every medical situation is different, but I know someone with a similar story. Would you like to talk to them?”
5. “Have you tried essential oils/all natural remedies/a gluten-free diet?” While I’m sure your friend appreciates the advice, she has likely consulted every expert in the field and is following their sound professional advice.
What to say instead: “Would you like to hear about how some other people I know are treating this disease?” (Though, if you are not a medical professional, it might be best to keep the advice to yourself.)
6. “Let me know what I can do to help.” This is so thoughtful, but odds are your friend has NO idea what she needs and probably wouldn’t ask if she did.
What to say instead: “I’d like to bring a meal by for you. What is a good day and time to drop it off?” Here are nine suggestions of things to do instead of asking what you can do.
7. “I know how you feel.” I try not to say this to other moms of children who have cancer because, no, I don’t know exactly how they feel. Each case is different; and each outcome – even if it ends similarly – plays out in a much different way.
What to say instead: “I can’t imagine how you feel.” Then really listen when she tells you. Even if you’ve had a child with a medical crisis as well, sometimes it just needs to be about your friend and her child.
8. Nothing. It’s understandable that illness and death make people uncomfortable, but sometimes that can be interpreted as apathy.
What to do instead: If a conversation makes you uncomfortable, send a card or a text message that says simply “thinking of you.”