How to talk to a parent whose child has cancer

Being told your child has cancer is probably one of the worst things a parent can go through. The emotional devastation the diagnosis causes is quite unbearable. Trying to cope with, not only your own emotions, but those of your child, their siblings, and your partner is difficult enough. But then you also have the added pressure of the emotions from work colleagues, friends and family around you. 

Obviously the out-pouring of shock and upset is to be expected. Everyone wants to know the sordid details, When did you find out? How was the cancer found? What treatments are available? What’s the prognosis? And the list goes on. You feel as though you are on auto pilot repeating the same details over and over again.

But then after a few months you begin to notice a strange phenomena starting to occur, people have not only gradually stopped contacting you but they seem to have actually started to avoid you. This insight isn’t from just my own personal experience but also from a variety of other cancer mums and dads I have spoken to over the past 3 years since my son was diagnosed with leukaemia.

Friends and family start off with such good intentions. There is normally some form of fund raising for cancer charities, people rally round offering their time and support because people like to feel useful and they seem to need to ‘do’ something constructive to help.

But most cancer parents I’ve spoke to have experienced the ‘supermarket scram’ as I call it. You will be walking down an aisle and suddenly you see and a friend, but rather than smile, make eye contact and start talking, the friend frantically picks up the nearest product available and becomes heavily engrossed in reading the label whilst simultaneously praying we haven't noticed you and will walk on by. (The gentleman who became engrossed in reading about the 'monthly' type products, I'm talking about you, but please don’t feel bad because you gave me the best chuckle I’d had in weeks).

Another scenario is that the friend sees you and suddenly becomes quite flustered. By the time you have walked up to them, they are exaggerating looking at their watch and apologising profusely whilst explaining that they are in a real hurry and cannot chat. 

Perhaps I'm being unfair and these people were genuinely in a hurry, it happens, and maybe the gentleman was terribly interested in learning more about his wife’s ‘products’. Or possibly the truth is that most people don’t have a clue what to say to a cancer parent and feel so totally uncomfortable that they would rather jump off a cliff than have to ask 'how are you?'.

So, I have put together some do and don’ts to help you all cope with us.

Firstly, please understand we are not ‘china dolls’ and we will not break down and fall to the floor of the supermarket wailing just because you’ve asked how our child is. (Well, not every week anyway).

Secondly, we like to hear about ‘normal’ life too. So please DO tell us that your child has just been chosen for the football team, won an award at school etc. though do avoid waxing on too lyrically about little Sophie’s marvellous achievements or we will start looking at our watches and making excuses to go.

Thirdly, please please please do not try and make comparisons to what we are going through and what you feel you’ve suffered lately. Sorry but you DON’T “know just how we feel” because little Sophie broke her leg – unless her leg has caused her to need three years of gruelling chemotherapy and is scarily life-threatening.

Fourth, do not tell us weird cancer recovery stories such as the man who cured himself by standing on one leg in the garden all night etc

Haven’t left you much have I? There’s always the weather to talk about, only joking here’s the do say list:


· ask us how things are doing but don’t be surprised if we say “fine thanks,” often we are too tired and fed up to keep reeling off the same information.

· ask us if there’s anything you can do to help. But again don’t be surprised if we say ‘nothing thanks’. We’re trapped in a world where our whole energy force is directed away from day to day trivialities so we often can’t think of anything. You can, however, offer ideas. Such as: taking the ‘other’ children out because with the best will in the world, siblings of children with cancer often get ignored. Or another good suggestion is the offer of a home cooked meal for when you’ve spent a long day in the hospital. Nothing fancy is needed, just a simple lasagna or sheppard’s pie delivered to your door is fantastic and very gratefully received.

· say “if you don’t know what to say” you won’t be the first person to say that to us nor the last and to be fair, we feel sorry for you too. We often can’t find the right words to say to other cancer parents and we’re living it! Remember: You’ve already won major bravery points for even stopping to talk to us.

If you suddenly get the urge to text or email, follow through with the idea. Sometimes just a simple “thinking of you” text is wonderful to receive especially during the many long hospital stays or times when you feel isolated from the ‘real’ world. 

But please do be careful sending jokes and ‘chain-mail’ texts. Try and be a bit sensitive. I received what I thought was a lovely chain- text about angels giving you love and blessings but at the end of the text it stated that if I didn’t forward it to 20 people within the hour, something terrible would happen. At the time I’d received the text my son was being sick into a bucket for the 8th time that day – needless to say I didn’t pass the text on but I did launch my phone across the room in disgust.

Ultimately just keep trying. And anyway even if the worst does happen and we do get upset in front of you, you will have done us a great service. Crying is a great stress reliever; we will go home feeling much better, even if you don’t. And it not as if a few tears will make you ‘melt’ like the wicked witch of the west, get over yourselves.x


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