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“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.”

Family

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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“So sometimes she’d get sick and that kind of made me worried. Like, ‘Oh,
it’s getting worse,’ you know. I knew she was taking the pills, but I didn’t know.
I thought that was supposed to make her better. And then when she got nauseous
because of it, you know, it kind of made me worry.” (12 year old son)

HispanicFamilyStockPhoto

Many of us believe we can guess what a child thinks about and wants to know when someone in their family has cancer. However, many children have worries and concerns that come as a big surprise to their parents. A child may be unsure about whether it is OK to talk about the cancer. As one 8 year old boy put it, “Well, I was kind of nervous that she might get mad at me for asking her something about the cancer.”

Younger children especially may not have the articulation skills to ask questions or verbalize their worries. This can result in the child creating a “fantasy” about what is happening and what will happen, that is far more frightening than reality. The words of this 12 year old girl underscore this fear, “I wondered if it would end up the same as what happened with my grandma-if (my mother) would die.”

Parents with cancer face many challenges, not the least of which is trying to talk to their school-age child 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 Kids’ and Parents’ Group provides children and parents with an opportunity to get support and assistance when a parent has cancer. Kids talk about their experiences through sharing circles, art projects, and puppetry. They also learn ways to take care of themselves. Essentially, kids have a safe place to talk about their feelings, they feel less isolated, enhance their coping skills and increase their understanding of the illness, its causes and treatment.

The concurrent group for adults, the Parents’ Group, provides an opportunity to talk about the challenges of parenting a child when a family member is ill and to share the experience with other adults having a similar experience. Additionally, parents learn skills to help them to respond to their child’s expressed concerns and worries as well as changes in their child’s behavior. A mom who had attended the group had this to say about the benefit to her, “I told my kids all about my upcoming surgery, and it went really well! It went much better than I thought it would. And I owe it all to all of you.”

Please contact Mary Ellen Shands at (206) 832-1279 to reserve your place for our upcoming Kids’ and Parents’ Group.

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