Does having cancer cause special problems in non-traditional families?

There are many kinds of families, and in some of them, children may already feel different from their peers. They may feel the effects of bias against adoptive, LGBT, or single-parent families. Adding a cancer diagnosis to the mix may make a child feel even more different and more isolated from his or her peers.

Parents in same-sex relationships or other non-traditional families may have talked with their children about being in a family that some people think of as “different.” The same advice they give their children about being different can also apply to having a parent with cancer.

Access to a good support network can make a difference in how well non-traditional families cope. If a supportive network doesn’t exist, talk to the hospital social worker about other resources. In many communities, for example, there are support programs with therapists who are familiar with the unique needs of LGBT people. Other special support groups may be available either in your area or online. If you don’t know about these resources, look into what’s available in case you need help.

Single or divorced parents

Cancer make things truly overwhelming in a one-parent household. Getting to treatment, setting up child care, and paying medical bills are added to the already heavy load of feeding, cleaning, carpooling, shopping, and meeting the family’s emotional and survival needs.

If children have already lived through the break-up of a 2-parent household and no longer live with a parent they feel close to, their grief over a parent’s cancer can be worsened. If the other parent has a close relationship with the child, extra visits might be helpful to reassure children that they still have 2 parents who love them. If a separated or divorced couple has problems, they need to be resolved out of sight and away from the stressed child. Otherwise, tensions make it harder for the whole family to get through the current cancer crisis. As with kids in traditional families, sometimes children need professional help in dealing with a parent who has cancer.

If there is no other adult in the household, sometimes a parent will turn to their child for emotional support. A parent may recognize that it’s not healthy for the child, but it can still happen. With an illness like cancer, the chance of reversing roles with children is very real. The parent needs more help in running the household and more emotional support. Children may start taking on more responsibility than is healthy for their age and stage of development. Single parents should set up and maintain a network of friends and relatives who can be called on for emotional and practical support. Usually, being aware that you might rely too much on your children is enough to help you guard against this happening.

LGBT families

In a home that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) parents the needs of children are not different, but some issues can be more complex. Legal custody or guardianship may become a problem if the legal parent is hospitalized or unavailable, and the other parent is not legally named as such. As soon as possible, think about appointing a guardian to care for and legally act on the child’s behalf in case you cannot do so. This might be for just a short time because of treatment, or longer if you are disabled or don’t do well with treatment. You need to do this to prepare for a possible emergency – don’t wait.

Families with adopted children

Adopted children often face questions about themselves as they grow up and try to figure out who they are and maybe even who their biological parents are. A parent’s cancer diagnosis may make adopted children feel less secure. They may need special assurance that they will be cared for if anything should happen to their adoptive parents. This is especially true if they have only one adoptive parent, as it is with any one-parent household.

Unmarried couples with children

Parents have certain legal rights and responsibilities whether they’re married or not. Unmarried parents might have extra problems with certain legal and financial arrangements, but children should still feel safe. Sometimes children might feel uncertain or worry if they’ve gotten wrong information from friends or relatives. They may even fear that a parent will leave if things get difficult. Be sure the children know that the family is working together to get through this, and tell them about any expected changes. And as always, they need to know who will care for them if there’s an emergency or a parent is absent. Sharing your back-up plans with the children, and making needed legal arrangements, will let them know that both parents are thinking of their care and safety.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: January 29, 2015 Last Revised: April 27, 2015

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