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

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Will this experience leave my children with emotional scars?

Many people struggle with this question and there’s no simple answer. A parent’s cancer will have an effect on their children. Only time will show if the effect is negative, positive, or a mixture of both. How the family handles the recurrence and the possibility of death, and especially how they talk about it, will largely determine how the child copes and the child’s future adjustment. Unless the child is a very young infant, they will have memories about the cancer. Some of the memories may be from family stories.

Cancer in a parent or important family member is a crisis for the family. The outcome of this crisis depends on many things. Parents should do their best to be honest with their children and keep the children’s lives as normal as possible. That’s a good start in helping children get through the changes taking place.

Many factors influence how a child will grow and develop into adulthood. These factors include genetics, social class, culture, personality, education, spiritual orientation, and the quality of child/parent relationships. Even when children have all of these things going for them, there’s no guarantee that they will turn out “right.” And there are other kids who, in spite of the most chaotic home situations, achieve well beyond what might be expected of them. So it’s hard to make statements about how the experience of chronic illness will affect any one child.

Most parents do the best they can to deal with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and that’s really all that can be expected. But parents are rarely satisfied with their best efforts and might feel guilty and worried about what the experience of cancer will do to their child’s future. It may help to remember that children tend to bounce back quickly, and even if you feel like you’re making mistakes, these mistakes will not destroy them. If you find yourself in turmoil about how you or your children are doing, think about getting some help. For many people, having a parent with advanced or recurrent cancer is probably the most stressful or serious situation they’ve ever faced. It’s not reasonable to expect a family to just know how to deal with all of the problems that come with a serious illness.

Many people don’t want to seek help because they think to do so means there’s something wrong with them. But the more help you ask for, the more help you get, and the more resources there are for the rest of your family.

In the end, all you can do is your best. We’ve given you some ideas about how to help yourself and your family. None of us escapes life pains or problems. The best we can hope for is that you continue to support and love each other through the experience.

Key messages to share with your children

In summary, there are 3 important things your children need to hear often:

    Nothing you did or didn’t do caused the cancer to come back.

    No matter how this might turn out, we will work together as a family to deal with it.

    There’s a plan for who will take care of you if something happens to me.


Last Medical Review: 12/05/2014
Last Revised: 12/12/2014