A cancer diagnosis is difficult enough for most people; for many parents, the news brings an extra set of concerns. How do you explain the situation to your children? What if they have questions you can't answer? How do you cope with their fears about your well-being?
For the patient
Now that you have been diagnosed with cancer, you probably have many questions about sharing this information with your children. Learn how others have faced this situation so you can decide what is best for your family, whether your children are preschoolers, school-aged, or teens.
Some questions you might ask yourself, as well as those your children might raise, and the possible ways in which you might respond.
Most children will need to have some basic information about cancer and its treatment. Here you'll find general areas to cover with them over the course of diagnosis and treatment, and guidelines on how to share this information.
Guidance on what to say about your treatment, how treatment may change your family's day-to-day life, and how to talk to your children and family about it all.
Children also have to cope with changes and worries when a parent is diagnosed with cancer. Review some suggestions on how to help them manage.
How can you tell when your children are really struggling to cope with your illness, and what can you do if you suspect they're feeling stressed? Find general guidelines for determining when your children need extra support and how to provide it.
Both you and your children can benefit from good two-way communication with school personnel. This section offers advice on how to start this important conversation, and identifies what information teachers need to know to support your children.
This page provides simple, clear definitions for many of the terms you and your family may hear during your diagnosis and treatment.
Telling others about your cancer
Helping children when a family member has cancer
Telling kids about cancer
Slide show: "Tips for Talking to Your Children About Cancer"
For the family
Family members and partners, also known as caregivers, are deeply affected when an adult is diagnosed with cancer. The well partner is dealing with the impact of cancer and supporting the patent, while potentially taking on additional responsibilities within the family. Anticipate what to expect at this difficult time and learn coping strategies.
For those family members and partners who lose a loved one to cancer, bereavement support, in the form of resources, materials, or in-person or online groups, can be helpful in managing life after cancer.
You may feel overwhelmed by the practical and emotional changes that come with being a caregiver. Dana-Farber offers information intended to help you understand and cope with these changes.
If you're the caregiver of a young adult between the ages of 18 and 39, you may also consider joining our Young Adult Caregiver Community.
Others have also found these resources helpful:
Share the Care
No matter their age, children often experience difficult emotions when a loved one, especially a parent, is going through cancer treatment. Here are some resources that may be helpful for your child:
Support groups and camps for children and teenagers whose parents are going through cancer treatment, or who have lost parents to cancer. Kids Konnected connects children with same-age peers who are going through similar experiences.
Camp Kesem gives children whose parents are being treated for cancer the opportunity to just be kids through laughs and emotional support.
This guide from the National Cancer Institute provides teenagers with insight into what their parent may be going through, how to take care of themselves during their parent's treatment, and how to talk to their friends about cancer.
When treatment is over, most people are eager for life to return to normal as quickly as possible. In fact, most families and friends expect that you and your usual routines will be right back to where they were before the cancer diagnosis. However, it usually takes a while for everyone to adjust to this change, and you and your children may be surprised by some of your reactions.
You may continue to feel some of the physical effects of treatment for a while. That might catch all family members off guard, causing some worry or stress. But you and your family's emotional responses might be even more unexpected. Both physical and emotional recovery takes some time, and it is helpful for everyone in the family to be aware of this process.
Children often see their parents as invincible – their own personal superheroes. But cancer can be kryptonite even for the strongest parents. Seventeen-year-old E.R. reflects on how her family life changed when both parents experienced a cancer diagnosis.
Karen Perry was undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer when she and her husband Brian learned that their son Owen, then 11, had leukemia. They offer advice for families going through similar circumstances.
Erin Silva, RN, BSN, has formed very strong connections with her adult patients at Dana-Farber/New Hampshire Oncology-Hematology (Dana-Farber/NHOH) in Londonderry, New Hampshire. However, the 30-year-old oncology nurse rarely saw the full impact of cancer on their children, until she began volunteering at Camp Kesem, a non-profit, student-run organization that offers free camping experiences to children ages 6-16 whose parents are living with or died from cancer.
Mimi Gallagher never missed a gynecologist appointment. But despite her diligence, and years of worry-free trips to the gynecologist, the mother of two was diagnosed with stage III c ovarian cancer in July 2012. Read how her treatment, and genetic testing, affected her family.
Navigating Cancer Together
Programs for families parenting with cancer
Dana-Farber’s Family Connections program and Social Work Division are dedicated to supporting adult patients with cancer who are parenting.
Join us throughout the year for educational support programs for you and your family. All programs take place in Dana-Farber’s Smith Building, Rooms 330 and 335.
Parents of school-aged children (children aged 6-12 welcome)
- Saturday, Jan. 30, 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
- Saturday, April 30, 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
- Saturday, July 23, 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
- Saturday, Oct. 22, 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Parents of children aged 0-5 (adults only)
- Tuesday, May 3, 12:00 – 1:30 p.m.
Parents of adolescents aged 13-18 (adults only)
- Tuesday, March 1, 5:30 – 7:00 p.m.
To register for a program or learn more, speak with your social worker or contact Family Connections at 617-632-2605 or email@example.com.