Parents with Cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 1.5 million cases of cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Although the disease can occur at any age, 75 percent of patients are over 55.
For a parent, a cancer diagnosis can greatly affect family life and routine. Sometimes household roles and responsibilities need to be adapted, shared or taken over by a spouse, other family member or friend. Childcare assistance may be needed. Work schedules may need to be adjusted. In some cases, one spouse may need to stop working to care for the other, leading to a decrease or loss of income.
Reaction of Children
Children react in different ways to family crises. When a parent is sick with a serious illness, like cancer, a child’s concern is not only for mom or dad, but also for him/herself and any siblings. Generally, a child’s reaction varies by age.
Toddlers have little understanding of what it means to be sick. However, changes in routine or physical appearance in a parent can disrupt young children’s sense of security, causing them to become visibly upset and fearful. They may have trouble sleeping or refuse to eat. Older toddlers may revert to infantile behaviors, like thumb sucking, or lose previously learned skills. Temper tantrums may become more frequent and serious.
Preschoolers have a little more understanding of what it means to be sick, but may be unable to fully process the meaning of the illness. They may believe they did something to “make mommy or daddy sick” and behave “extra good” to make a parent feel better. Preschoolers also often fear being left alone and may have nightmares or become extra dependent and clingy.
School-aged children may need to deal with disruptions in the home and school. They have a better understanding of the consequences of serious illness and may have seen older relatives deal with sickness and death. These children may react with anxiety, depression, anger and fear. They may become withdrawn and isolate themselves from family and friends. Some lose interest in schoolwork and have trouble keeping up with classroom activities. Complaints, like stomach aches and headaches, are common.
Adolescents often have big adjustments to make when a parent is diagnosed with cancer. Often, an older child must take on adult responsibilities and care for younger siblings. The sudden change in family dependency comes at a crucial time when an adolescent is trying to develop independence. An adolescent may waiver between periods of anger at having to take on these extra responsibilities and guilt for having those feelings. In some cases, adolescents may rebel or turn to drugs and alcohol to ease the emotional and physical stress.
Helping Young Children Cope
Research shows when a parent has cancer, one of the most important ways to reduce anxiety and fear is to keep the children informed. When children don’t have enough information about the illness, they often guess and make incorrect assumptions.
It isn’t easy for parents to discuss life-threatening problems with their children. It can be particularly difficult to relate information to young children, who have limited capacity to understand, but large imaginations and fears.
Kathleen McCue, Child Life Specialist with The Gathering Place in Cleveland, OH, has written a book to help parents talk to their young children about cancer. It’s called, Someone I Love is Sick. The book is geared for children between 2 and 6. There’s also a version to help children deal with cancer in a grandparent.
McCue says the book is written in a storybook format because children love to hear someone read to them. It covers topics ranging from diagnosis, treatment, hospitalization, cancer recurrence and death. The loose leaf format enables a parent to customize the book by taking out pages that aren’t applicable to the situation. As the “book” is read, the child hears a story that reflects what’s happening with the parent and family. McCue explains that the book is not meant to be read word-for-word. A parent can make comments that personalize the story even more or expand on details (as age-appropriate and fitting).
The book can be read over and over again, as necessary. And, as the parent begins to feel better, or if the prognosis changes, pages can be substituted to tailor the “story” to match the new situations.
Someone I Love is Sick sells for $21.95. The proceeds from the book benefit the “Gathering Place,” a free nonprofit cancer support center for patients and families. For information, go to http://www.someoneiloveissick.com.
AUDIENCE INQUIRYSomeone I Love is Sick sells for $21.95, with proceeds benefiting the “Gathering Place.” For information, go to http://www.someoneiloveissick.com
For general information on coping with cancer in the family:
American Cancer Society, http://www.cancer.org
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Finch, A., and F. Gibson, “How Do Young People Find Out About Their Parent’s Cancer Diagnosis,” European Journal of Oncology Nursing, July 2009, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 213-222.
Gazendam-Donofrio, Stacey, et al., “Parent-Child Communication Patterns During the First Year After a Parent’s Cancer Diagnosis,” Cancer, September 15, 2009, Vol. 115, No. 18, pp. 4227-4237.
Giesbers, J., et al., “Coping with Parental Cancer,” Psychooncology, August 2010, Vol. 19, No. 8, pp. 887-892.
Kennedy, V., et al., “How Children Cope When a Parent has Advanced Cancer,” Psychooncology, August 2009, Vol. 18, No. 8, pp. 886-892.
Longfield, K., and A. Warnick, “Supporting Children of Parents Who are Dying,” Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal, Winter-Spring 2009, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 10-12.