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 parts 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’re even more worried now (if that’s possible) than you were when you first found out 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 likely well aware of your feelings (and that of the other parent) during this time, so we’ll discuss some of what’s happening with you before we address what they may be going through. Then we’ll try to help you understand what your kids 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’s important to a child. If the person with cancer is a child or teen, see our Children Diagnosed With Cancer series.

This is one in a series of pieces covering topics to help children when someone in the family has cancer. The others cover diagnosis, treatment, terminal illness, losing a parent, and psychosocial support services. For more 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 as if you can’t help yourself, much less anyone else. All of a sudden, your life is in chaos again and your future is uncertain. 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 feeling betrayed 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.

So, take some time to grieve and feel sad or angry. Talk to your family about how they’re feeling, too. Then you can pull yourself (and all of your resources and support systems) together to start doing the things needed to meet the cancer challenge again. Here are some things to think about as you prepare to talk to your children about what’s going on. 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 the cancer recurrence? Yes. Does that mean there’s no hope? No. When cancer comes back, your hopes are very different from those you had when you were first diagnosed.

Today, a cancer recurrence doesn’t have to mean you don’t have long to live. Advances in cancer treatment and the management of treatment side effects continue to improve. There’s no denying your situation is more serious if the cancer has come back, but for many patients this simply means that treatment will be different.

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 things still can be done to treat and control it. You and your family should be clear about the goal of any treatment you’re having: Is it to relieve pain or symptoms? Extend survival? Might it cure the cancer? These are things you’ll want to know as you’re weighing your treatment options.

It’s often very hard to think about starting more treatment for cancer. You may have feelings of panic and desperation. If you’re unsure about more treatment, you might want to get a second opinion from a doctor at a cancer center or university teaching hospital. Again, ask about the goals of each treatment you discuss with them. Make sure you have covered all your bases and given yourself every chance to get the best treatment available.


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