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?

This is a question that many people struggle with and one for which there is no simple answer. A child will never forget the stress and pain of losing a parent to cancer. But there will be happy memories and many important life lessons learned through the cancer experience as well. Cancer in a parent or important family member will certainly have an impact on children, but it should not be assumed that it will always be harmful. 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 you are 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 have 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 that 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 if you are not around to tend to all the details.

In the end, all you can do is your best. We have 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 grow 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:

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 is a plan for who will take care of you if something happens to me.

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