How to Parent with Cancer

September 01, 2021
How to Parent with Cancer

Written By Sara Olsher

When you have cancer and young kids, the Big C can feel like an entirely different diagnosis than it is for the other people in your support group. It took awhile to find my community, but once I did, I found that my experience was shared by many, many other parents.

If you’re feeling alone as a parent with cancer, please know that not only do you have a community, but there are a lot of survivors who have walked this path before you and are ready to lend you a hand — myself included. 

As someone who has been there, here are some tips for parenting when you have cancer:

How to Talk to Your Kids About Cancer 

Talking to my daughter about my cancer diagnosis topped my list of “conversations I don’t want to have.” To make it easier, I looked for a good book to help.

Kids need (and like!) to have concepts repeated, and will return to a book over and over, relying on it to put their minds at ease. That’s why starting with a book is so helpful.

 I had a few requirements:

  • I wanted it to be straightforward and not scary, with friendly illustrations and no talk about death (I wanted that to be my job).
  • I wanted to explain the science of what cancer actually is. With my background in psychology, I knew that the truth would make it easier for her to cope.
  • I needed my daughter to know that this wasn’t in her control. She didn’t cause cancer, and I didn’t want a book to imply that her hugs could heal it.

Six books for kids about cancer later, I came up empty-handed. I couldn’t understand why there were so few resources — and that’s when I decided to create my own.

When it was released, my book What Happens When Someone I Love Has Cancer immediately went to #1 on Amazon, a tribute to just how desperately parents needed a book for kids about cancer.

If you find yourself needing to have this conversation and can’t wait for a book to be delivered, I made one of my books, Cancer Party!, free to download. I also have a free, detailed guide for talking to your kids about cancer.

Tame the Chaos

Kids rely on routines to feel safe; they need to know what to expect each day, and cancer treatment can disrupt everything. For my daughter, life started to feel chaotic. All of the things I used to do were done by other people, from school drop-offs to cooking dinner. 

That’s why pretty much every professional recommends this tip: Keep to a routine as much as possible. Keep their morning and evening activities in the same order, even if different people are helping. 

A routine chart that displays their morning and evening activities can help bring attention to the things they can expect each day.

Creating a visual calendar became a big part of relieving my daughter’s stress. Just like a routine chart helps with daily activities, a calendar helps with weekly activities.

On the calendar, I shared who would do school drop-off and pick-up each day and when I’d be having various treatments

I also tried to guess how I’d be feeling each day based on where I was in my chemo cycle. This helped her to prepare herself emotionally for days when I felt exhausted.

Stay Emotionally Connected

Speaking of exhaustion, it’s hard to stay connected when you’re too tired to do a lot of the activities you used to do together, like riding bikes or playing outside. 

When I created a visual calendar for parents with cancer, I made sure to include stickers for quiet activities that are easy enough to do when you’re exhausted. 

These activities can include things like playing cards, doing a craft, reading, watching a movie, or doing a puzzle. My main piece of advice? If you’re really tired, set a timer for 15 minutes and set your child’s expectations for the time limit before the activity begins.

Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial. By talking to your kids about your cancer treatment process using a book and calendar, you’re sending the message that it’s safe to talk to you about their feelings, which makes it less likely that they’ll keep any of their big emotions to themselves.

Cancer isn’t just something that happens to the patient — it affects the whole family. And treatment, especially when it involves chemotherapy, can feel like it goes on forever. 

For kids, who think they’ll probably starve if they have to wait 5 minutes until dinner, treatment can feel like a lifetime. 

Remind everyone in the family that even when it doesn’t feel like it, you are making progress. We drew a big pie chart on our kitchen white board, and split it up into 6 for the number of chemo cycles I had. Each time I finished an infusion, I’d color in a piece of the pie. This visual reminder made everyone in the house feel better.

Stay Aware of Signs that Your Child is Struggling

Cancer is hard for the whole family, and everyone will take a ride on the “Struggle Bus'' at some point through this process. 

For kids, struggling can look like:

  • Withdrawal
  • Increased or worsening tantrumsFears that may or may not be related to cancer
  • Complaints of tummy aches and headaches

If you start to see behavior like this, reiterate that they can talk to you about any of their concerns, and also make sure they know of other adults in their lives who are safe to talk to, like teachers, family friends, or relatives. My daughter told my mom and my boyfriend things she didn’t want to tell me, and their support helped her a lot. 

There’s no shame in finding a professional therapist for your kids and yourself. Having extra support can be a game changer, especially when the kids’ therapist can give you tips for home.

Lean on Your Village

Asking for help from friends and family is absolutely essential for your well-being. I used to do everything myself — especially as a single mom — and cancer was the kick in the pants I needed to accept help.

The truth is, people want to help. When you say no, you’re like, robbing them of the opportunity to do something kind that makes them feel good! And you’re blocking your kids from seeing the kindness and good in others. Accepting help from others is good for everyone.

Ever since I started my company, Mighty + Bright, to help families through hard things like cancer, I’ve had parents facing all sorts of tough circumstances reach out and confess how guilty they feel.

Remember, Cancer Isn’t Your Fault

Cancer is not something you are putting your family through. Cancer is putting you all through this. It’s not hard because you’re making it hard, it’s hard because sometimes life is hard. Release your guilt and go easy on yourself - guilt is the last thing you need.

No one gets out of life without hardship. Your kids are facing hardship young, but they are facing it with you there to hold their hand. You’re resilient, and you’re raising resilient kids. Good job.

Learn More About How to Parent With Cancer With OneVillage

Regardless of where you are in your cancer journey, OneVillage is here to help. OneVillage is dedicated to providing the support, information, goods, and services that cancer patients need. Whether you’re wondering how to parent with cancer or how to find a community of people like you, OneVillage is here.  In addition to highly personalized recommendations and checklists to help you navigate your new normal, through our WishList feature we also allow supporters to contribute to a fund for  your medical trips and other expenses. If you have any further questions about what OneVillage offers and site features, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Sign-up to personalize your cancer journey – free, always.