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

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

For someone with cancer, one of the hardest things to go through is when the cancer keeps growing during treatment or comes back after treatment. It’s hard for their loved ones, too, and may be extra hard for children and teens.

You may find that you are even more worried now (if that’s possible) than you were when you first learned you had cancer. And it might have been many years since that happened. No matter how much time has passed, you may find yourself facing all-too-familiar feelings of fear and uncertainty. Each person close to you will go through feelings like this, too. Your children are keenly aware of your emotional state (and that of the other parent) during this time, so we will discuss some of what’s happening with you before we address what they may be going through. Then we will try to help you understand what your children might be thinking and feeling, and share some ideas on how you may be able to help them through this time.

This discussion is written for a parent with cancer, but it can be used during the illness of any adult who is important to a child. If the person with cancer is a child or teen, you may want to see our Children Diagnosed With Cancer series.

This is one of six documents covering topics to help children when someone in the family has cancer. The others cover information on: diagnosis, treatment, terminal illness, losing a parent, and psychosocial support services. For more information on these and other topics, go to the “To learn more” section.

How can I help anyone else when I’m so upset about the cancer coming back?

Learning that the cancer is back can be overwhelming—you may feel that you can’t help yourself, much less anyone else. All of a sudden, your life is in chaos again and your survival is in question. And then there are your kids to think about.

Even though you are your children’s best source of security, you don’t need to be perfect. Your steadfast love for them is the most important factor in how they will manage, so try to be realistic about what you expect of yourself. You may need to rely on others for help for some time during your treatment. It may be hard to ask, but remember that people often really want to help and it might be only for a short time, until you feel more in control.

You may feel sadness and grief as you prepare to do battle with cancer again. You realize that your comfortable, normal life will go away again, at least for a while. Patients often describe a feeling of betrayal because their body has “let them down.” They say things like “I did everything I was supposed to (surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation) and the cancer still came back!” You may wonder what you can count on. All of these feelings are normal. At some point, most people are able to rally their resources and fight the cancer again. But one of the biggest mistakes you can make at this point is to expect to meet this challenge alone. You, your family, and your loved ones must meet it together, because this battle may be even harder than the first one.

So, take some time to grieve and feel sad or angry. Talk to your family about how they are feeling, too. Then you can pull yourself (and all of your resources and support systems) together to begin doing the things you need to meet the cancer challenge again. Below are some things to think about as you prepare to discuss your situation with your children. If you need more information on recurrence for yourself, you might want to read When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence.

How do I deal with the sense that recurrence means things are hopeless?

There are a lot of different ways to look at and talk about cancer that has come back, and many things can affect your outcome. Is there a chance you might not survive your cancer recurrence? Yes. Does that mean there is no hope? No. When cancer comes back, you may find that your hopes are very different from those you had when you were first diagnosed.

The type of cancer you have and your response to treatment will dictate your outcome. Today, a cancer recurrence doesn’t have to mean you will not live long. Advances in cancer treatment and the management of treatment side effects continue to improve. There’s no denying the situation is more serious if the cancer has come back, but for many patients this simply means that treatment will be different and perhaps more aggressive than it was at first.

At the same time, cancers that come back or get worse despite treatment tend to be harder to treat and control. It’s important for you to talk to your cancer care team. They can give you a good idea of what you can expect to happen. It may be that your cancer is not likely to be cured, but there are things that can be done to treat it. You and your family should be clear about the goal of any treatment you’re having.

It’s often very hard to think about starting more treatment for cancer. You may have feelings of panic and desperation. But there often are more (or different) treatment options available. If you are unsure about more treatment, you might want to get a second opinion from a doctor at a cancer center or university teaching hospital. Make sure you have covered all your bases and given yourself every chance to get the best treatment available to fight your illness.

What if the cancer has spread to many parts of my body? Should I still think about more treatment?

There’s no one answer to this question. It depends on the type of cancer, the effect it is having on your body, what your health care team is telling you, and what you and your family are thinking and feeling about the situation. During cancer treatment (even if the treatment is not working well), you are under a doctor’s care, the cancer’s progress is being slowed, and side effects and symptoms are being watched and treated. For some people, getting cancer treatment helps them feel better and stronger, because they are doing something to fight the cancer. For others, being in treatment works the opposite way—it may make them feel more tired or less free. Only you can decide how you want to live your life. Of course, you’ll want to hear how your family feels about it, too. Their feelings are important since they are living through the cancer with you. But keep in mind, the final decision is up to you.

Whether or not you want aggressive cancer treatment, you should always get supportive care. This is also called palliative care, and you can ask for it any time you are having problems. It’s commonly used along with cancer treatment, but is better known for its role in promoting comfort when aggressive treatment is no longer working. Palliative care is treatment of symptoms—it’s not expected to cure the cancer. It’s care that focuses on making your life the best it can be, even if, at this time, there’s not a good chance of curing the cancer. This means that symptoms like nausea, pain, tiredness, or shortness of breath are treated and controlled—just as they should be when a person gets aggressive treatment. Sometimes medicines are used, but other types of treatment may also be used. If you need help finding good palliative care options, call us for more information.

Along with people getting treatment that’s expected to cure the cancer (curative treatment) and those getting only palliative or supportive care, there are many people who are treated for cancer for long periods of time. Even though the cancer isn’t likely to be cured by treatment, for many patients, it can be kept under control for years. Cancer becomes a long-term, chronic illness, much like diabetes or heart disease. Treatment can be used to shrink the cancer, ease symptoms, and help you live longer. Even though it can be hard to do, many families adjust to this kind of treatment schedule.


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