Parental Cancer: Questions and Answers About Changes in Family Rhythms and Routines
If you are a parent who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, there are few concerns
that seem as important or basic as how to help your children cope with all the stress
and changes facing your family. Children are very sensitive to changes in their parents'
moods and behavior and may even sense that something is wrong before you even begin
talking with them. Talking about cancer and the emotions that arise is not a one-time
discussion, but rather a series of talks that will continue through your treatment.
There is no way to change the fact that cancer is a serious illness that affects the
entire family. In general, talking with your children in a calm, hopeful way, and
being able to answer their questions, will help them to accept and meet the numerous
challenges that arise. Recognizing and voicing feelings among family members can be
the basis of finding strength and resilience for the entire family. The following
questions and answers may help you anticipate and respond more easily to changes in
your family rhythms and routines as a result of a parent's illness.
Q: I am a parent of two school-aged children. I've recently been diagnosed with cancer.
Will our family life be able to remain "normal?"
A: The short answer is no. Many things are likely to change, but your family will develop
a "new normal" as you all learn to cope with your illness and treatment. It takes
time for a new routine to emerge and for errands, meals and transportation to happen
the way your family expects them to. Have patience, communicate with one another,
and ask for support from others when you need it.
Q: What changes can I expect?
A: You and your family are in for a crash course in learning to be flexible. It is likely,
that for the foreseeable future, you will not be able to count on a predictable schedule.
Physical and emotional changes, as well as reactions to treatment, will probably impact
your daily routine. Demands for a new level of flexibility may never have been so
great. Ask your family to think about which routines are most important. Try to put
your energy into them. These are a few of the things that you can expect to change:
transportation, meal preparation, errands, attendance at your child's functions, visitors
to your home, communication with friends, house rules, everyone's energy levels, emotional
needs, holidays and vacations. It may be frustrating, but remember that these are
temporary changes. Learning together to be more flexible and overcome adversity may
be a hidden benefit of the cancer experience for you and your family.
Q: How do I blend our old routines with the new demands we are facing?
A: It may be hard, if not impossible, to try to follow old routines. Sometimes, trying
to maintain old routines may demand more energy than adjusting to new ones. Changing
old routines is not necessarily bad. As a parent, you have been preparing your children
to deal with adversity since they were young. This is an opportunity to continue teaching
them, albeit one you didn't ask for. There are many things you can do to help prepare
your family for some of the changes that will occur. Maintaining open communication
is one of the most important. Help your children to prioritize the important events
in the upcoming months. Have backup plans for the most important of these, such as
arranging to have a friend drive your children to a party if you are unable. Let your
children know when you are feeling tired or sick. Let them know that no matter how
you feel or act, you love them the same as always. Think about what types of things
your children can do to help out which can contribute to their sense of purpose. Finally
let other adults know what they can do to help. Most will be relieved to help with
the day-to-day tasks associated with caring for children. Try to remember that things
will likely return to a sense of normalcy after treatment ends.
Q: How involved should my children be in taking care of me at home?
A: First, it is important to determine how much your children want to be involved. Some
children may find caring for a parent too difficult emotionally. In this case, try
to find other ways they can help at home. In some cases you may have to rely on your
child's assistance. Try to give them tasks they are easily able to perform. Let them
know how much this means to you. Keep in mind that age matters. Young children have
shorter attention spans. Give them tasks that are easy and safe for them to perform
alone. You might ask them to let the dog out, bring you a glass of water, or bring
you something to read. Pre-teens and teenagers will help, despite the protests you
may hear. Find out what tasks are comfortable for them. Often teens are embarrassed
by bodily changes and by the routines and tasks associated with cancer treatment.
By communicating, you will be able to work out errands and tasks they are comfortable
performing. Teenagers often have to sacrifice time with friends, which is very important
at that age, to help out at home. Some teenagers may already be used to having more
freedom and separation from the family, and may resist the demand to focus more on
family matters. An older teenager might prefer tasks that emphasize their maturity,
such as driving to the drug store to pick up a prescription or driving younger children
Q: Are my children coping well?
A: Children let us know how they are doing through their words and behavior. There are
a number of signs to look for which may indicate that your children are struggling.
When talking with your children, note if efforts to engage them in conversation or
daily activities are often unsuccessful. Do your children refuse to talk with anyone
about your illness? Watch your children's moods, and if you notice increased levels
of anger or worry that persist, you may want to seek assistance. Increase communication
with your children's teacher or guidance counselor who can inform you of any school-related
issues. Other potential warning signs include declining interest in hobbies or sports,
and avoidance of peer activities. You may find that your children's behavior has regressed,
or they have developed new habits or physical symptoms such as frequent bedwetting
or physical complaints such as stomach aches, headaches, and fatigue. Listen for reports
of new aches or pains. Your children's signs of distress can be eased by professional
support. Coping with a parent's cancer is an unusual stress in a child's life. Even
children who appear to cope well may benefit from the opportunity to check in with
a counselor or therapist for emotional support.