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

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How can I help my child when I have so little energy?

This is probably the one of the toughest parts about dealing with recurrent and advanced disease. There may be days when treatment side effects are harsh and you don’t have an ounce of extra energy to spare. There are days when it’s hard enough to figure out how you are going to take care of yourself, let alone deal with what your children may need from you.

Don’t feel guilty that you can’t meet all your children’s needs.

The ages of your children will affect how you respond to their needs. Younger children who need a great deal of attention may seem harder to manage than those who are more self-sufficient. But all children have needs that you may not be able to meet. Feeling guilty about having cancer and how it changes you as a parent is another burden you don’t need in your life. Try to think about this: if someone else in your family were ill, would you want to be there for them? Would you try to understand how they feel and do anything you could to help them? The answers are probably yes. Though serious illness can bring changes and stress to family relationships, you don’t need to apologize for being sick. Explain that you know how tough it is on everyone and ask for help—you and your loved ones can get through the rough times together.

Your unique family situation will play a role in getting through those times when you have little to give to your family. In a 2-parent family, adults can share roles when one parent is unable to help out as much as usual. But in these families, the well parent usually feels more pressure to keep things going and needs to take an honest look at how they are managing with all the extra tasks. If you are the patient, you may suspect that your spouse is feeling tired and even resentful at times. That’s to be expected, even though people usually have a hard time saying it. Any anger you perceive is likely not directed at you but rather at the situation.

There will be times when everyone has run out of patience. It’s best to admit that you are at the end of your rope and need a break. In a one-parent family, you may have to reach out further to get help. But you will need it, so it’s better to start sooner rather than later. Family members, friends, neighbors, and even the parents of your children’s friends may be willing and able to help you with your kids’ day-to-day routines.

Let the kids help out.

It’s also a good idea to let children help in any way they can. Are there small jobs that your children might do for you that will make them feel they are included in a special way? Can they make you a cup of tea after school? Bring your medicines to you? Cook meals? Get the mail and sort it if you’re not feeling up to it? Children enjoy having special jobs and being rewarded with praise. Just helping you makes them feel special, too.

Be careful with this because sometimes it can go too far. Often one or more of the children wants to help you all the time. This can cause other kinds of problems for them, such as feeling that they’ve failed when you still feel bad. It may also cause more stress for them, and deprive them of many chances to be children and enjoy life. Sometimes you must remind your child that you are thankful for their offers of help, but that you don’t expect them to take care of you all the time. Depending on their age, their job will always include spending some time helping out with the family and household. But their job also includes going to school, doing homework, playing games with friends, sports or school activities, and having some fun. Children should not feel guilty about needing play time. Their lives may not be carefree any more, but they need time every day when they can leave those cares behind.

Other family members and friends may help, too.

In families with a large support network, it’s nice to have even more people to share the workload. But the number of people is not the important thing. Some families just naturally work well together. Others find it harder and may feel as if it would invade the privacy of other family members. Some family relationships were troubled before the cancer, and those problems may not be easily forgotten. Your cancer team may be able to refer you so that you can get help with any ongoing family problems, or get help for your children or other loved ones. Oncology social workers, nurses, or doctors can usually get you started in the process of finding mental health resources.

It can be hard to ask others for help.

Asking people for help is probably one of the hardest parts of having cancer in the family. For the most part, people prefer to be self-sufficient and take care of their own problems. But cancer is not something a person can manage alone—you need a team of players to get through it. Family members often want to help. And when you ask for their help, it often makes them feel better, too.

If it is hard for you to do this yourself, think of someone in your family who can manage things for you. That person might become the family organizer and can help you make a list of things that need to be done. There may be someone who can easily pick your children up from an activity at the same time they are picking up their own children. There may be other people who can help during an emergency or on an on-call basis even if they can’t help regularly. Is there a neighbor who shops every Thursday morning? If so, can they call Wednesday evening to see if they can pick something up for you? When people say to you, “Let me know what I can do,” try to answer with specific suggestions about what they can do. If they can’t do the first task, go down the list and ask about another one. Again, people who offer to help really want to do so. Though it may be awkward at first, a list of specific tasks can make this easier and even small efforts can really make a big difference for you and your family.


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