Helping Families When Cancer Changes Everything

October 27, 2014

“When my dad was first diagnosed with cancer, none of us knew what to do.

My dad didn’t want to talk about it and the rest of the family didn’t know what to say.”


Cancer is far more than a disease affecting the patient, cancer affects the whole family and in many different ways. For many families it is their first experience with a life-threatening disease. Initially, they are overwhelmed with efforts to understand technical information about cancer and to make meaning out of what the doctor has told them even as they are dealing with feelings of shock and fear. They have to learn how to interact with the health care system in a more intense way than they ever have before.

As a group, family members are often unclear about how to talk with each other about what is happening to them. In addition, they are inclined to feel protective of the patient’s feelings or, since they are not the patient, they have no right to feel sad, frightened or worried and are reticent to talk about their own feelings and concerns. Family members are most apt to respond by wanting to “be positive”, and by wanting to offer support through advice, reassurance and help. Many families have had limited experience in talking about their feelings with one another. All these factors leave family members wondering what to do and how to help the patient and themselves.

Cancer is often assumed to be life-threatening, it also can be a time that family members feel increased pressure to become closer as a family but also feel the pain of unresolved issues between themselves and/or the patient. They may feel isolated within the family as they attempt to cope and deal with their feelings. Even as the family members attempt to cope with what is happening, they may find their coping efforts are thwarted by other family members. Such a predicament is not unusual for families, but is seldom talked about together.

Parents with young or adolescent children are also challenged when trying to talk to their children about the cancer. Parents want to be open and honest about the cancer, but don’t want to scare their child. They work to find the balance between truthfulness and hope. This is often difficult to do when the parent is juggling doctor appointments, treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea and their own emotional responses to what is happening to them.

Cancer Lifeline’s Couple, Family and Parenting Meetings can help! Families have used the meetings to:

  • Learn about the illness and its impact on the family
  • Make decisions about treatment
  • Talk about their feelings and concerns with their family members
  • Learn about community resources
  • Learn how to get what they need from their doctor and/or health care system
  • Talk about the impact the illness is having on their children and learn ways to support their children

Schedule a Couple or Family meeting by contacting Mary Ellen Shands at (206) 832-1279 or mshands@cancerlifeline.org.


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