Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Recurrence or Progressive Illness

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What about the “why” questions?

Both adults and children deal with the question “why?” at diagnosis, during treatment, and especially if there is recurrence. This question becomes more intense the more serious the situation is.

Why me?

For some people, looking for an answer to the “why” question can cause many sleepless nights and incredible soul searching. Others find that it doesn’t really matter why something has happened—how to best deal with it is more important. Many people think that if they knew why something has happened – and then can start or stop doing something – somehow the situation will change. While this idea is not usually rational, it helps to understand the way people think. We all look for reasons for what happens in our lives. It’s hard to accept that cancer can be a random event and that there may be no answer to why a person develops cancer. Many things can influence the development of cancer – these can be genetic, environmental, or related to something a person did. Most people never know why they have cancer, so trying to find the answer to this question only leads to frustration, sadness, or anger.

It’s OK to tell your child that this is the kind of question that doesn’t help right now. You can explain that, rather than look for an answer, you would rather spend your time and energy trying to get better and enjoying time with them.

The bottom line in answering the “why” question is that knowing the answer to the question will not change what happens next. Worrying about “why” can drain people of energy that would be better used in coping with the illness. Consider getting some counseling if you find yourself unable to move beyond this question.

Was it something I did?

For some people, the answer to the “why” question might relate to something they did, such as smoking, tanning, or drinking a lot. These people can have a much harder time living with their choices because they feel guilty about doing something that could have caused their cancer. Their job is to forgive themselves. If they can’t let go of the guilt and self-blame, living with the cancer is that much harder. Many times it helps to talk to an oncology social worker or cancer counselor to make peace with these issues.

Children hear and see a lot of information about health and illness—in school, on the Internet, on television, and in talking to their peers. Some of this information is accurate but much of it is not. Some of it may be misunderstood by the child telling it or by the listener. Ask your kids to tell you what they know or what they have heard about cancer before you talk about it. In most cases, you can honestly say that doctors do not know why a parent has cancer.

In cases where a person’s behavior may have helped cause the cancer (such as smoking and lung cancer) it’s best to admit that, and express sorrow and regret. Kids may express anger, but this is normal and should be expected. Allow them to vent, get help managing these feelings if needed, and encourage your kids to learn from the mistakes you made.

You should also make it clear to the children that cancer is not contagious—you didn’t catch it from anyone and there’s no risk of anyone else in the family catching it. You may have to say this more than once.

Children should be told that although no one knows for sure why some people get cancer, it’s certain that the child did nothing to cause the family member’s cancer. This point should be made often and clearly to your children. Otherwise, children may believe it was something they did or didn’t do that caused the cancer.

Last Medical Review: 07/20/2012
Last Revised: 07/20/2012