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When a family faces a pediatric cancer diagnosis, they are forced to contend with many challenges. Establishing a treatment plan is of primary importance. However, quick on the heels of the treatment plan, are the companion social and emotional needs of the whole child.

Children are social beings. Parents need support. To support a child with cancer is to support the family as a whole.

Play dates with pediatric cancer patients are essential. It is true that there are special considerations about visiting children undergoing oncological treatment – but these are navigable.

Says Julia Thompson, whose daughter underwent successful treatment for cancer:

“Parents are really honored by (and appreciative of) parents and kids who come visit.”

Thompson speaks movingly of the difficulty in managing side effects during treatment. She remembers the salve of social connection for her entire family during that time.

Thompson emphasizes – above all else – to wash hands a great deal. Those who remember to wash their hands as a surgeon would scrub in for surgery (and without even being reminded) are treasured visitors. The parents of young visitors must themselves understand the importance of hand washing. They must be willing to impart this knowledge about the mitigation of germs to their children.

Do not default to staying away out of “respect” or discretion. Parents will be the first to let others know if they need privacy.

Offer to visit with your children. Simply put, pediatric cancer patients need their friends.

This is how to have your well child have a successful play date with a pediatric cancer patient.

When visiting the patient meet on their home turf. Make sure to go to the home of the patient. Do not suggest meeting at a common area such as a playground or an indoor gym. These latter venues tend to be highly trafficked and germy – chemotherapy and radiation radically compromise immune systems. Home is safer for the child in question.

Bring something new to do. Because a pediatric patient is often homebound, do bring something new for the kids to play with. Consider a new DIY kit, or a new Lego set. As to the latter, Creative Lego is fun because it is less necessary to focus on extremely exact directions. Also, bear in mind that kids undergoing radiation oncology may suffer peripheral neuropathy and may have trouble with tiny hinges and such. Hot Wheels are fun and less difficult to assemble. Before you buy an activity, ask a parent what their child is especially enjoying. Note also that if there is a sibling, a small new toy for them might also be in order. If the effort is to maximize the positive interaction in play, having a younger sibling trying to participate may complicate things. Package up some Play Dough and let them know you’re thinking of them too.

Talk to your child about the friend who is ill. Let your child know that their friend is sick and is getting medicine that changes their body. Their friend is still the same person inside. The medicine is helping the body to do the very best it can to heal. If the child they will visit is bald, let them know in advance. It is natural that a healthy child will have questions about a pediatric cancer patient’s bald head.

It is perfectly appropriate to ask the parent of the patient how best to handle these questions. Cancer parents get these questions a lot. They appreciate the opportunity to shape a narrative on their terms. Some families appreciate receiving hats, temporary tattoos, magnetic earrings (do ask about these earrings – magnets don’t go well with certain medical equipment.)

Explain to your child that the illness their friend has is not contagious. Be completely clear with your children that they will not get sick from visiting. Spell out that cancer is not contagious. Invite their questions. Make sure that they understand that being a good friend means playing as normally as possible.

Always reveal all exposure to germs prior to visiting. The family of the patient will make an informed decision. Depending on the type and stage of treatment, germs are potentially life-threatening. If a conservative call is made to postpone the physical play date, see whether the kids want to find a time to Facetime or Skype one another.

Keep the play date short. Pediatric cancer patients get tired easily. Check in with the parent about when the child is getting tired, and anticipate making a graceful exit. Get another play date on the calendar as you leave.

Photographs Courtesy of Joe Wagner & Julia Thompson. Used with Permission.

Give InKind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. See Terms & Conditions.

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