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What Can I Do? How to Help a Newly Diagnosed Family

Written by Guest Contributor, Joe Phillips

We live in a world filled with good people. This truth comes to life when someone goes through a hardship like a childhood cancer diagnosis. When my daughter was diagnosed both times—yes, both times—people reached out to see what they could do to help. They instinctively know that there is pain, grief, confusion, and so many other emotions happening right now. They know there is a lack of sleep...lack of focus...lack of [insert just about any need]. “But what to do?” they wonder. So they ask, “What can I do?”

Here’s the deal: hearing that question can be frustrating. A conversation with you may have been a moment of escape from their reality. This question brings it all back with the impact of being hit with a hammer. We are grateful people want to share in this nightmare—even if for just for a moment, for it is as lonely as one can imagine. But remember the lack of focus, sleep, and everything else? A person going through this trauma may be unaware of what they need.

“But, I want to help.” On behalf of people going through struggles, whatever they may be: thank you.


Now, here is the answer to the question. Focus on the basics: food, shelter, clothing.


Think of their family demographics. Are there any other kids to feed? Do you know their favorite food? Favorite restaurant? Setting up a meal train so people can offer to drop off prepared meals is always welcomed. Especially as time goes on, and the family has been in their battle for weeks, months, or even years. Gift cards for gas, groceries, and restaurants really do make things simple for the family. If you do not know their favorite restaurant, go for the one that is closest to their home.


The needs of the home sometimes get put on the back burner. Lawns still need to be cut. Flowers need watering. Pets need care. Are there any type of home repairs that you know of that might be done in a day or two? You could send a gift of money to pay for bills. When we were in the beginning of our journey, a couple from our church offered to keep our son if any type of emergency came up with our daughter and we had to go to the hospital on short notice. That was huge. Unfortunately, we had to take them up on their offer more than once.


A gift of some article of clothing for kids is a great option. The focus is often taken off the needs of siblings, so remembering them is awesome. I promise you this act of generosity will touch the parents’ hearts in powerful ways. If you can visit the family in the hospital, bring a t-shirt for the parent that is staying with the child. They probably have two with them. Throw in a change of socks. A set of pajamas for the warrior [child on treatment] with their favorite superhero or cartoon character is thoughtful.


It is always helpful to take care of the basics. I understand that sometimes people want to go beyond the basics. After my daughter’s second diagnosis, we had a friend send us a huge box of amazing high-end candies. Wow! That was nice. Another sent a movie package that had microwaveable popcorn, candy, an Amazon movie rental gift card, and a gift card for a pizza delivery place. One of the first gifts we received at diagnosis was a balloon bouquet that was sent to the hospital. It brought a smile to my face every time I saw it.



However impersonal it may seem, money truly is a welcome gift—especially if the treatment location is far away, and one parent is at hospital and the other is at home. The parent at the hospital knows their needs and can use the cash for all kinds of things: vending machines, Starbucks, a Target trip for new underwear, Chinese delivery instead of pizza, food at the hospital cafeteria, magazines from the gift shop, or even a new toothbrush. So many little things only they know they need. Again, I know it may seem cold and impersonal, but cash truly is king sometimes.

Your presence

I will not be able to stress enough and put into words how important the gift of your time is. Your willingness to physically walk side-by-side with a family hit with the unthinkable is a gift beyond words. Knowing you are there can bring enormous peace of mind for the family. No one wants to feel alone. Your presence through cards, phone calls, text messages, and even those hard hospital visits can strengthen a person like nothing else.

Your prayers

Lastly, never forget to pray. Never forget to remind them that they are loved by God. They may not feel it in the moment, and that is why you must remind them. Send devotional books and other uplifting gifts. But above all, pray, my friends. Prayer has a power that we only think we know the extent of. Don’t just say that you will pray for them. DO IT! Even if you aren’t a person of faith or aren’t sure what you believe. Say the words on your heart. God is listening.

In closing, I want you to know that you already know what to do for a person in a bad spot. Follow your heart, for it is telling you what to do. But remember this above all else: your heart is not telling you to walk away from them. Love them as you would want to be loved. Be there. Be present. And pray.

The Phillips family— Joe, Alana, Luke, and Tillery—was introduced to Lighthouse Family Retreat when they were facing their own childhood cancer journey. After two years as a Retreat Family, the Phillips family loves coming back every year to walk alongside other families facing a cancer diagnosis. “Lighthouse is the heartbeat of our family,” they share.

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