Helping Children When a Family Member has Cancer: Understanding Psychosocial Support Services

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Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: UnderstandingPsychosocial Support Services

Note that this information applies to all families with cancer, whether or not there are children in the family. It’s written for the parent with cancer, but can be used by other family members too. Information for families with children who have cancer can be found in Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis. You can read it on our Web site or call us for a copy.

Cancer affects every family member.

When a loved one has cancer, the entire family—the patient, the partner, other supportive adults, and the children— faces many complex issues. Cancer changes everything. It may remind people of other losses and force them to look at unpleasant realities, and it might worsen any unresolved conflicts.

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

Cancer and its treatment cause physical, emotional, and mental symptoms, and treatment often changes day-to-day life for the whole family. It may cause financial stress and bring up fears of losing what’s good in life. Some people will start to look more carefully at what they believe in, their work, and the way they will live if more changes are needed. During all of this, there will be times when any family could use help getting their emotional needs met.

Having cancer is hard. And getting through it can be a very involved and complicated process. It affects the social and emotional (psychological) parts of the person with cancer and each family member or loved one. This is known as the psychosocial part of having cancer. Just as people need the services of a surgeon, medical oncologist, or radiation oncologist, there may be times when they need the services of a psychosocial professional, too. Just as there are cancer treatment teams and surgical teams, there are also teams of experts, each with a different focus on mental or social health, who understand how cancer affects a family. This psychosocial team can offer the patient and the family support during this time.

Parents can have a powerful effect on how their children react to a crisis in the family. At first, this responsibility can feel like a huge weight, but it’s possible for family members to learn how to deal with and even grow through the experience of having a family member with cancer. But at any time in the process, any family member may need extra help.

What are psychosocial support services and who offers them?

Psychosocial support can include mental health counseling, education, spiritual support, group support, and many other such services. Young children may be offered play therapy. These services are usually provided by mental health professionals, such as psychologists, social workers, counselors, specialized nurses, clergy, pastoral counselors, and others. These professionals might also refer you or your family to other sources if they identify other needs after talking with you.

Why would we need psychological help at this time?

Most people struggling with a new cancer diagnosis feel as if it is the worst thing that has ever happened to them. Older adults have often learned some coping skills to help get through the hard times in their lives. But younger people may not have done this. And some people have not had any experience at all with an illness like cancer. If there are children in the family, there are other special issues to address. For more information, please see Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis.

When you first find out you have cancer you are bombarded with new information. You might forget that over your lifetime you’ve developed skills that have helped you along the way. You can use these skills and develop new ones to deal with cancer.

In the first few weeks and months of a cancer diagnosis many decisions must be made. You will be learning and understanding the language of cancer and its treatment. You’ll need to decide where to be treated, choose a doctor, decide on the best treatment, and learn how to manage treatment side effects. Just as you become an expert on your medical care, it’s vital to be in touch with your emotions so that you can help both yourself and your family. Support from family, friends, and the health care team are all critical.

In going through these tough times, people with cancer often feel overwhelmed. For some, just getting through the day and doing what must be done can feel impossible. For instance, about 1 in 4 people with cancer will become clinically depressed at one time or another. This affects everyone in the family, including the kids. Having a depressed parent is linked to certain problems in children. Problems that were more or less under control may become worse under the stress of the cancer diagnosis and treatment. Communication, which can be a challenge even in good times, may get more strained and difficult. All these changes can make children feel less secure, and make it harder for them to adjust. Getting help can take the pressure off, ease some of these problems, and may reduce school and behavior problems in children.

What kind of support services can I expect from the hospital where I am being treated?

Whether there will be support services at your hospital depends on where you are getting your treatment. In cancer centers, universities, or city and community hospitals, psychosocial services are likely to be offered along with medical care. Small hospitals or those in rural areas may not offer all types of services. If that’s the case, you may find the services you need from agencies in the community, private counselors, places of worship, or peer support programs.

In a large hospital or cancer center, a team of people, including doctors, nurses, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and nutritionists usually deliver cancer treatment. In some treatment centers, a social worker, clinical nurse specialist, member of the clergy, or counselor may be able to help with family issues.

Usually the first thing a mental health caregiver will do is a psychosocial assessment. This is done to find out the needs of the person or family, depending on who is being seen. Having this assessment or evaluation does not imply that you or your family is not doing well with your cancer. But it’s one way for you to share your concerns and feelings with an expert who has talked with many other people and families like yours. Based on this assessment, you may be referred to another member of the team who can attend to a certain need. An example might be seeing a social worker for help with your finances or to work out new ways to deal with a family conflict.

The health care team knows that having cancer is scary and can cause great family stress. Learning about some of the issues from people who have worked with other families in similar situations may be helpful. In some hospitals, your doctor or nurse may refer you to the department that offers psychosocial support services. You can also contact them yourself or ask your cancer care team where you can get this kind of help.

What kind of support services should I think about?

Support services options that may be offered to people with cancer:

  • Individual (one-on-one) counseling
  • Family counseling
  • Groups

The entire family usually comes in for the family counseling sessions, but sometimes family members may see the family therapist one at a time. Family therapy can help the members better relate to each other and better handle conflict.

Group support services are sometimes just brief education topics followed by discussion. Sometimes groups are made up of other people with cancer and run by a professional who helps people focus on the problems they have in common. Other groups are peer support only; for instance, other adults with cancer, with no professional group leader. Deciding what’s best for you depends on a number of factors, like the services that are available in your area, the cost of services, and how the cancer seems to affect your whole family.

Individual, family, or group counseling can help with tough situations, but you will want to match the type of support with your needs. For example, if you are feeling sad or depressed, it may be hard to find the energy to respond to your children. You may be too distracted and worried to deal with all that’s going on. Talking with a counselor one on one can help you identify your feelings and work toward solving your problems.

Sometimes just talking about your feelings and what’s happening, finding out that your feelings are normal, and hearing that you don’t have to worry about everything at once—you can take it one step at a time—is invaluable. On the other hand, if you feel that you are dealing with your illness and treatment pretty well, but your children seem distressed, find a counselor who knows how to help children during a parent’s illness. For that you may want a family counselor. If you are wondering how other people with cancer cope day-to-day, a support group of people who have cancer might be your first choice.


Last Medical Review: 08/09/2012
Last Revised: 08/09/2012