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

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What should I look at if I decide on a support group?

The purpose of a support group is to help people in similar situations share their concerns with each other and learn more about coping and problem solving. People in a support group can also expect to learn more about their cancer and get new ideas from others. For example, a person who has just been diagnosed with cancer can hear from others about how their children might react, since they have been through this experience. A woman with breast cancer can learn from other women about breast reconstruction. Men with prostate cancer may learn from each other about dealing with the side effects of treatment. Young adults can learn from others who already have dealt with problems like dating.

No single formula describes a cancer support group. Some meet in hospital settings, some within a community agency, at a family service agency, or even in a patient’s home. Usually groups are either open-ended or closed. And they can be run by professionals or patients.

We have listed information below about the different types of groups and factors that can affect your choice of group. Before you start with any group, you will want to think about these factors and how they may affect your work with a group.

Open-ended groups

These groups often allow anyone with cancer or their family members to attend for an indefinite period of time. People might come only during times of stress or need, such as when the course of the illness is changing, when deciding about new treatment options, or when new family concerns come up. These groups might allow new people to come in at any time, which can make attendance uncertain. No one knows who will show up from one meeting to the next. It’s important, though, that even one-time attendees agree to keep what goes on in the meeting confidential.

Closed groups

In this case, the same group of people meets for a set period of time. These groups may be organized for people with the same diagnosis, the same stage of disease, or by the kind of treatment people are getting. Some groups are for women or men only. Some groups are only for people with cancer, while others are for the people who support or care for the person with cancer. In general, they do not allow people to join the group after the group has started.

Groups can be organized by topic, which means different issues will be discussed each week. Or the group may have a free-flowing agenda where group members can discuss whatever they would like to talk about.

No matter what kind of group you go to, the group leader should address the issue of keeping all the information private. In any support group, you should feel free to discuss your concerns with others and know that what you talk about will not be shared or discussed with anyone outside the group.

Other factors affecting your choice of groups

Group leadership

Groups can be led by professionals or by cancer survivors. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of groups. Professionals include oncology social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric or oncology nurses, or clergy. These experts should be licensed in their fields and have skills and/or experience in leading groups. An experienced group leader has been trained in setting up groups and knows how to help group members get their needs met. They should also know how to deflect group members who tend to take over the conversation or deal with people who are upset or angry.

If a cancer survivor runs a group, that person may or may not be able to deal with these tasks very well, simply because they have not had group skill training and experience. Still, many cancer survivors are comfortable dealing with difficult behaviors in a group and have had enough life experience to run a group well. Others may find themselves feeling ill at ease or overwhelmed by what’s being discussed in the group or by group members’ behavior.

Personal preference

People often have strong feelings about the kind of group they want. Some feel that only someone who has had the experience will make a good group leader. Others want a professional who will offer more education about cancer or emotional issues. You could consider trying both types of groups to learn which feels right for you. Your comfort level is usually a good gauge of the health of the group and how well it fits with you. If you feel OK sharing your feelings and believe that your problems are being addressed, the group will likely be useful. If not, try another group or another kind of counseling until you figure out what’s best for you and/or your family.

Some people are more at ease in groups than others. For some, it’s easy to share feelings with others. Other people find that this kind of sharing feels like an invasion of their privacy. There are few rights and wrongs about how people react to being in a group. Some people find groups helpful at certain times, like when they are first diagnosed or when their treatment changes. Groups can be a good source of information to help patients make decisions. Cancer survivors help new patients know what to expect and what situations to avoid. Sometimes only a cancer survivor will have that perfect little tip that ends up making a big difference in how you get through the cancer experience. And sometimes a professional group leader will point to something in the big picture that helps you and your family.

Phase of illness

Sometimes a support group might be perfect for one phase of the illness, but no help at all for another phase. And you should look for a group with members who are in the same phase that you are in. For instance, people with cancer who have been encouraged to go to support groups when they are first diagnosed may be overwhelmed in a large group of people who are going through a cancer recurrence. Recurrence is just not what a new cancer patient needs or wants to focus on at the start of their cancer treatment. So, check out the groups carefully. Make sure that your needs or those of your family members are enough like those of the group you are considering. This type of research ahead of time may save you or your loved one some time and unnecessary distress.

Personal comfort

It often takes a while to feel you can share openly in a support group. Some group members are naturally talkative, while others get along better just by listening. Usually in time group members feel more comfortable talking about their concerns and feel good about helping others in the group.

Special support for special needs

Some needs are best addressed in a special type of support group. Examples are groups that give parents information on how children typically react to a parent’s diagnosis, how to explain your diagnosis at work, or how to talk more easily with your doctor.

Other problems, like ongoing marriage problems or serious psychological problems (like depression) are not best handled in a support group format. For people struggling with these kinds of issues, one-on-one counseling is a better choice. Once you feel less anxious or overwhelmed about your situation, you may be in a better position to be helped by a support group.

The intensity of your feelings about a situation may also help you decide about attending a group. You may feel so upset about your situation that the idea of discussing it with others makes it worse. Your own or your family’s distress may make it impossible to listen to anyone else’s problem. This is another example of when it’s probably not the best thing for you to join a group.

Are there support groups for children and teens?

Yes, some cancer treatment centers or communities offer support groups for kids who have a family member with cancer. Support groups for children and teens are usually divided by age; for instance, a group for teens is not usually set up for small children and vice versa.

There is growing awareness that children whose parents have cancer can be helped by support groups and that they, in fact, have some of the same needs as adults. The main goal of a child’s support group is to give children the chance to meet other kids whose parents have cancer. Children can feel all alone if a parent is sick, and they don’t know that others have the same feelings and worries that they do. It can be comforting for kids to meet others who are going through what they are. Although the concerns will vary by age, kids have many worries and questions. Some of these include:

  • Why does my mom or dad have cancer?
  • Did I do something to make it happen?
  • Did my parent catch cancer from someone else?
  • Will my other parent get sick?
  • Can I get cancer, or catch it from my mom or dad?
  • How will my life change?
  • Will my parent still be able to take care of me?
  • Will my friends at school know about my mom or dad’s cancer?
  • Should I tell my friends about it?
  • Will people treat me differently if they know about the cancer?
  • Is my mom or dad going to die from cancer?
  • Who would take care of me if that happens?
  • When will I be able to do things I enjoy?
  • Will mom or dad still do fun things with me?
  • Will I have to take care of my mom or dad?

Even if your kids don’t ask these questions, they are probably thinking about them. You might need to bring them up yourself. You can’t know the answers to all of these questions, especially when you are first diagnosed, but these are issues that need to be addressed at some point. For more information, please see Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis and Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Treatment. You can read these online at www.cancer.org, or call us for copies.

Support groups for children and teens should always be led by professionals. Schoolteachers, guidance counselors, art therapists, music therapists, and oncology social workers or nurses with experience with children are examples of possible group leaders. Many children will feel anger toward the sick parent at some point, but few kids feel OK talking about their anger to a family member. The support group can offer a chance to talk about things that a parent and child cannot. These experts know about cancer, the issues it raises for families, and how to help kids manage some of the problems that come with having cancer in the family.

The success of a group for children depends both on the expert’s use of play therapy or activities to involve children or teens, and his or her ability to address tough issues. The group leader should be skilled in getting children to open up through play, drawing, and certain types of games. A cancer survivor may be able to do this if they have had training in working with children in groups and know how to talk about scary feelings without adding to the children’s fear.

The best kind of support group for children is often one that offers a support group for parents as part of the same program. Parents sometimes underestimate their ability to teach and support their children, even though clearly they are the real experts when it comes to their children. Parents can learn a lot about dealing with their children from other parents who have been in the same situation. Feedback from the group leader about your child’s experience in the group, along with any suggestions for change, can also be helpful.

Few children will be eager to attend their first cancer support group. Confronting your own pain and fear is hard for everyone. But once the child goes and has some fun and feels supported, he or she may be quite eager to go again. And at the very least, your child has a chance to be with kids who are like him or her, so the loneliness of the experience is lessened.


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