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Over 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year and just under 2,000 die of the disease annually. The diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, especially in a child, can leave families feeling afraid, uncertain, and alone. The Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation Southern Nevada has been helping families to cope with the emotions and physical reality of cancer since 1978, and you can help them too. By donating your car, your old, unused vehicle can be turned into funds that help pay for travel expenses, patient advocacy, medical expense assistance, family counseling, and support group activities. These programs are a life-line to those who struggle with a disease that can otherwise leave broken hearts and families in its wake.
What To Do When The Diagnosis Comes
One of the most difficult experiences any parent can face is trying to explain to a child that they have a disease that is not normally seen or felt. But even more difficult than giving the diagnosis is to be a child hearing it for the first time. Depending on the age of the child, there are ways to help them understand and deal with the difficulties. If you or a friend are ever faced with the unthinkable, here are a few key points to remember for age appropriate communication about cancer.
Infants Age 0-3
- Don’t understand the word “cancer”.
- Are afraid of medical tests that they don’t understand.
- Are frightened that doctors will remove them from their family.
- Need reassuring that they won’t be abandoned in the hospital.
- Have no concept of the time procedures take and don’t understand events in the future.
- Need simple and clear explanations for medical terms and your support and closeness to them, that you won’t abandon them.
Toddlers and Young Children Age 3-7
- Can understand simple explanations of cancer.
- Often search for reasons for their cancer, believing that they are sick because of their actions.
- Need comfort from parents that they didn’t give themselves cancer.
- Need guarantee from parents that they won’t leave them.
- Young children might be frightened that they will have to live forever in the hospital. Let them know they can come home when their treatment is done.
- They are often frightened of pain. They need you to be honest with them about medical treatments that will probably hurt. Explain that the treatments are to help heal them. Explain that doctors and nurses are on their side and want to help them.
“Tweens” Age 8-12
- Can understand detailed explanations of cancer.
- Not likely to believe that they caused their own cancer by what they did.
- Understand they need medicine to get better.
- Are usually still afraid of pain. Be honest about pain caused by treatments.
- They will hear about cancer from school, internet and TV. Encourage them to share what they learn with you. Discuss it together. Don’t let your child worry on their own.
Teenagers Age 13 to 18
- Teenagers worry about how they look, about losing their hair and weight fluctuations. Discuss these and other possible side effects. Be honest about what they can expect.
- Teenagers can understand better the impact that cancer symptoms and treatment will have on them, on school, sports and friends.
- Teenagers can understand more of the complexities of their disease and may have many questions. They’ll probably want to know more about their diagnosis.
- Will hear hear messages about cancer from many places and people. Invite open conversation. Ask about they are learning. Learn about your teen’s specific fears so that you can discuss it together and with your doctor if necessary.
- Might want to be involved in decision making about their treatment.
Principles To Communication about Cancer
- This is probably one of the most important conversations you will ever have with your child, it’s good to practice it. Think about what you’re going to say and possible questions they may have. Talk to your child’s healthcare professionals or parents who have been through it before.
- For this first talk with your child, it might be best to have another person there. It could be a family member, close friend or could also be a health professional who can explain what their treatment will be like.
Revisit the Conversation
- One conversation probably won’t be enough to have the reality of the situation set in. Consider having frequent, short conversations to keep the communication open.
- Be open and honest with your child and invite questions. Answer their questions honestly. Reassure your child that you will do all you can to find out the answers to questions you don’t know yourself.
Share Your Feelings
- Share your thoughts and feelings with your child. Encourage your child to share their feelings too. You are your child’s most important advocate. They rely on you for support. Your willingness to share your feelings will set the tone for them. Not being able to share their thoughts can make them feel alone. It is vitally important that they be able to share what is in their heart and mind.
- There will be a lot of new words that are unique to a diagnosis of cancer. Be sure to explain these words in a way your children can understand.
- Discuss and describe your child’s treatments. Be honest about pain and possible side effects. Preparing for medical treatments can make dealing with them easier.
- Get support for yourself, your child, and your family. Hospital social workers, family counselors and spiritual resources and organizations like Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation Southern Nevada can be an essential resource for families.
No parent wants to face cancer, but remember, if it happens to you or a loved one, that you don’t need to walk that path alone. There are many other families, health care professionals, and counselors who want to help you and ease your way.