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

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Isn’t having a positive attitude important in fighting the cancer?

When you have cancer, grief and sadness are normal.

In recent years, much attention has been paid to the importance of having a positive attitude. Some go so far as to suggest that such an attitude will stop the cancer from growing or prevent death. Patients are even told that they will never beat the cancer if they don’t stop feeling sad, bad, depressed, or some other so-called “negative” feeling. This kind of message is destructive to people who are dealing with cancer and a recurrence. They’re fighting for their lives and then are told they are responsible for causing their own illness. And to make matters worse, they may feel they aren’t supposed to grieve or feel sad over the new hardships and major changes in their lives. Please do not allow others’ misguided attempts to encourage positive thinking place the burden of your cancer on you. It’s not accurate, and it’s not fair to you.

Cancer is not caused by a person’s negative attitude nor is it made worse by a person’s thoughts. You can learn more about this in Attitudes and Cancer.

When others say things that hurt

Many people feel very nervous and awkward when they learn cancer has come back. They often don’t know what to say or do. They may try to say something hopeful and encouraging, but it doesn’t sound that way to you – in fact, it may seem hurtful and insensitive.

People say these things with the very best of intentions. But if you or your child are struggling to find meaning in what’s happening, the thoughts and feelings invoked by such comments might only add to your stress. You may feel very annoyed and even angry at their insensitivity.

If this is a problem your children are having, you may want to talk with them about good ways to respond. If the child is a friend, your child might say:

  • “I don’t feel like talking about this now – let’s do something else,” then suggest an activity they could do together.
  • To someone who isn’t close, your child could say, “I don’t know about that,” or “I don’t like to talk about this at school” (or “at practice,” or “during playtime.”)

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