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Cancer & Parenting

November 12, 2015

A cancer diagnosis affects entire families, especially when a parent learns he or she has cancer.

Cancer treatment, whether chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, requires a lot of emotional and physical strength. When you’re a parent to young or teenage children, balancing their daily needs with your own health needs can be difficult. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 24 percent of adults with cancer are parents to children younger than 18 years old and about 33 percent of women with breast cancer have children living at home.

Common Fears of Parents with Cancer

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you feel a range of emotions. It’s common for many people to experience feelings of inadequacy because they can no longer do everything they used to do, including simple, everyday tasks like cooking, grocery shopping or enjoying leisure activities with family and friends. For parents, it’s especially tough. You may have to miss an important recital, soccer game or other event that your child participates in because you don’t feel well or have a doctor’s appointment that you can’t miss.

One of the most common things I hear from parents with cancer is that they are afraid of what will happen to their families. Cancer is a life-changer, and it makes you look at everything differently. It’s only natural to have this fear, but you can’t let being afraid overtake you. If you have this thought try and replace it with thinking about all the actions that you are taking and the important people in your life. Having a positive attitude is helpful during cancer treatment, as it encourages you to stay active and remain connected to those around you. Your family will take their cues from you. If you remain realistic and appreciative of all you have around you, they probably will, too.

Family & Community Support

Support systems and support groups are critical when a parent is diagnosed with cancer. After a diagnosis, it’s important to talk to your spouse, relatives and close friends and explain to them what you need. For many of us, asking for help is difficult, but with cancer it’s best not to go it alone. If you can’t make it to an important event for your child, ask your spouse or close relative/ friend if they can go in your absence. If you don’t have the strength to perform routine, daily tasks or run errands, ask someone to do them for you. I’ve heard from many people that support from their relatives, people from their church or their local volunteer organizations was invaluable in helping them get through cancer. Like these groups, cancer support groups also play an important role after someone is diagnosed. Many of them, like the Cancer Support Community, include people who intimately understand what you’re going through. Some of the members are parents, so they share the same concerns and understand what it’s like to raise children while battling cancer. Talking to others helps many people cope with a cancer diagnosis, and support groups are often the best place to share your feelings.

Helping your children cope with your cancer diagnosis can be very difficult for most parents. During this time, it’s important to maintain a routine and find small ways to bond with your children. As I mentioned before, you should enlist a small group of close friends and relatives who can act as caregivers along with you. They can help you maintain your child’s schedule — for things like sports practices, doctor’s appointments, play dates and school events — so that your family retains as much of a sense of normalcy as possible. With children, comfort often comes in knowing that very little has changed. Support from family and friends can help you give your children this comfort.

It’s also important to find ways to spend time with your children, either one-on-one or as a family. Even simple activities like watching their favorite television show together, helping with homework or chatting during a weekly family dinner can help you bond with your children during this difficult time.

Cancer is a family disease. When a parent is diagnosed, children become part of that parent’s cancer journey, too. Raising children when you have cancer is challenging, but family and community support is critical to help you get through it, so you shouldn’t hesitate to rely on others for help. You and your family will benefit from this support.