Family Connections

Family Connections logo

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?

Family Connections, part of the Adult Social Work division of the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, is dedicated to supporting adult cancer patients who are parents and their children. Our mission is to offer guidance, information, and resources to those who are dealing with cancer in their family, and to identify and respond to the needs of parents and children by supporting, supplementing, and empowering family coping.

The program was made possible in part by a generous gift in memory of Deborah Rosoff, a Dana-Farber patient, and by her family and friends.

To contact the Family Connections Program, please email or call 617- 632-2605.

Social worker, Kelly Drummond, MSW, LCSW, with Family Connections participants

For the patient

Talking with children about cancer

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.

Questions parents often ask

Some questions you might ask yourself, as well as those your children might raise, and the possible ways in which you might respond.

What children want to know

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.

How to explain treatment

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.

How to help children cope

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.

Stress warning signs in children

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.

Talking with your child's school

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.

Medical terms made easy

This page provides simple, clear definitions for many of the terms you and your family may hear during your diagnosis and treatment.

Additional resources

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.

Reflect on your family's needs
Form a support system
Reassess your expectations
Take care of yourself
Think about your reactions to cancer
What is your role in medical care?
Financial and legal concerns

Additional resources

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:

Livestrong Foundation
Share the Care


For children

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:

Kids Konnected

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

Camp Kesem gives children whose parents are being treated for cancer the opportunity to just be kids through laughs and emotional support.

National Cancer Institute

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.


For survivors

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.

How your family's life will change
How children may react

Patient stories

Real Superheroes: A Teen Talks about What Happens When Both Parents Have Cancer

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.

Advice from Mother and Son on Facing Cancer Together

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.

Summer Camp Gives Nurse Insight into Challenges Facing Patients' Children

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.

BRCA-Positive Mom Supports Ovarian Cancer Research for Future Generations

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.

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Highlight Glossary Terms
  • Webchat: Parenting during Cancer Treatment

    • View a video webchat about parenting during cancer treatment featuring two Dana-Farber social workers and a mother of three, who shared how she told her children about her diagnosis and managed family life during treatment.
  • A Slide Show for Families Parenting with Cancer

  • Debby's Gift

    • Debby Rosoff During Debby Rosoff's battle with breast cancer, she and her husband searched for resources to guide them and their young children through this difficult time. After Debby died, her family created Family Connections in her memory.
      Read Debby's story
  • Join Our Online Cancer Community

  • What Our Patients and Families Say

  • Resources for Young Adults with Cancer

    • Dana-Farber offers a special program for people facing the unique challenge of living with cancer between the ages of 18 and 39. The Young Adult Program includes support groups, individual counseling, and community events.