Written by Abbie Synan
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Micheal Guerrera
Navigating the complexities of a parent and child relationship can be a challenge on its own. Throwing cancer in the mix can test even the strongest connections, regardless of your age.
However, if you feel overwhelmed by your parent’s diagnosis, know that you’re not alone. With nearly 17 million cancer survivors in the United States alone, cancer has shaken the lives of countless families around the globe.
Odds are you’re in for some difficult times ahead, but when a parent in your family is diagnosed with cancer, there are a few things you can keep in mind to soften the blow and provide cancer support foryourself and your parents. It can be difficult to know how to support someone with cancer even as an adult - children may need some extra guidance.
1. Normalize emotional rollercoasters
The news of a parent’s cancer diagnosis can be saddening, shocking, or scary. It often sends shockwaves of emotions that are far-reaching and can continue even past remission - that's when there's a decrease or disappearance of signs/symptoms of the cancer. You may spend some time in the beginning trying to decipher what your initial reactions mean and unpacking many feelings that bubble up to the surface. Sometimes, your own emotional health may feel like another burden on top of your parent’s cancer. Finding out how to support someone with cancer is never easy.
It’s important to remember that you may go through a wide range of feelings that differ from the emotional trajectory of others in your family, and that’s OK. Everyone deals with traumatic news in their own way, and differences don’t mean one person cares any more or less than the other about your parent. Feelings are complex, and there is no right way to feel or express yourself.
To avoid feeling overwhelmed, you can remind yourself that it’s normal to feel like you are on an emotional rollercoaster. Most cancer diagnoses come with a long road ahead full of treatment plans, hospital visits, cancer support activities and hopefully, a journey towards remission. One thing that can be helpful to pull yourself out of anxious thoughts about your parent’s health is trying to continue your own daily routines. Don’t feel guilty about not thinking of your parent’s health at all times. You can have concern and participate in activities that improve your personal mental wellbeing at the same time.
2. Let them take the lead on discussing their illness
Some parents may feel more comfortable sharing medical information than others. Yours may not feel ready to share everything about their treatments, side effects, or prognosis right away, and that needs to be acceptable.
Parents diagnosed with cancer are often thinking of how their illness may impact their families in addition to their own health. They may decide certain aspects of their cancer are on a need-to-know basis. It’s also helpful to know that in a household with children of varying ages, not everyone will be privy to the same knowledge about their parent’s illness. Parents can be selective depending on the needs of their children. Whatever they decide to reveal about their diagnosis, communication is key when factoring in family dynamics and keeping anxiety and depression surrounding the topic at a minimum
3. Prepare for potential role reversal
It can be scary to see your parent as vulnerable for what might be the first time. Adolescents and young adults may feel inclined to take on more responsibilities around the house, while adult children of cancer patients might step into a caregiver role, shifting the balance of responsibilities from parent to child.
Try your best to ease into any changes, approaching a caregiving role reversal with grace and sensitivity, as it can be difficult for a parent to accept help from their children when they have traditionally been the ones providing safety and security. It’s important to remember that there are also many resources available to you and your family, such as child care assistance for cancer patients. If you have younger siblings who need child care, you can lean on these various networks to help you.
4. Remember that cancer is life-changing for everyone
Be prepared for your parent to make changes in their life after cancer, whether that be small healthy habits or major lifestyle changes. When someone is presented with a second chance after a life altering diagnosis, they may see their lives differently and shift their long-term aspirations appropriately.
While a cancer diagnosis is most notably life-altering for the patient, it has the potential to send rippling effects through the whole family unit. Spouses and children also can feel a similar mental shift and make drastic changes as a reaction to the experience.
It can feel like this time will never end, but it’s important to maintain perspective by looking ahead past the prognosis through treatment. Acknowledging your family will be forever changed by cancer while still maintaining a loving and caring relationship between parent and child is the best way to tackle a tough diagnosis as a family unit.