Cancer support for parents

Being told your son or daughter has cancer turns your life upside down, but you can help your child through this – just remember to care for yourself, too.

Responding to cancer

It’s the sort of news that makes the world stop around you. Suddenly all of the hopes you have for your family can seem to be put on hold. But while it is incredibly difficult to find out your son or daughter has cancer, support exists for both of you. In the coming weeks and months, you’ll hear so much information it can feel overwhelming, but never feel afraid to ask questions. And remember that there is plenty you can do to support your son or daughter – but only if you give yourself a little TLC too.

Your feelings

A cancer diagnosis throws your emotions into chaos. You might feel numb, or confused, or unable to take in the news. You might feel angry or guilty. You might feel scared or alone. You’ll probably wish there was something – anything – you could do to stop your son or daughter going through this.

Whatever you’re feeling, it’s important to understand that your response is completely normal. A cancer diagnosis is the sort of news you hope you’ll never hear. There’s no right or wrong way to react.

It often makes things easier to be honest about what you’re feeling, which can be hard. But talking to your partner, or to friends and family, or to a counsellor, can ease your anxieties and fears. This is going to be a tough time, and you don’t have to face it alone.

Looking after yourself

It’s easy to neglect yourself when you’re so focused on looking after your son or daughter. But if you don’t take time to relax and stay healthy, you’ll be less and less use to your child.

So try and eat well and get enough sleep. Spend time with your friends. Get some exercise when you can. Don’t feel guilty if you find yourself laughing or want to talk about something other than cancer. And don’t forget to treat yourself now and then. Simple things like a long, hot bath or a haircut can leave you feeling totally revived.

You might feel like you haven’t got time to look after yourself, but it’s important to make that time. You and your family will be better off if you do.

How can you help?

There are a lot of practical things you can help with – from cooking healthy meals to packing hospital bags to driving to appointments. Doctors and nurses will give you advice on things like that.

But probably the most important thing you can do is let your son or daughter know you’re there for them. In the coming months, your support will be vital.

Remember, though, that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t stop your son or daughter from being an independent young person. So try not to:

  • Be over-protective. Young people need their own space – cancer or no cancer.
  • Take over. Involve your son or daughter in decisions about treatment, and try to understand if they sometimes want to go to appointments alone.

And try to:

  • Ask what you can do. Your son or daughter might want you there 24/7 or might prefer to know you’re always a phone call away.
  • Encourage your son or daughter to do normal things. If they’re feeling well enough, seeing friends and going out can make a real difference.
  • Talk about normal things. Not every conversation needs to be about cancer.
  • Be your normal self. A lot of young people feel worried and guilty about stressing out their parents, so try not to let cancer change you.
  • Be honest. This point is worth repeating – try to open up about your feelings and to encourage your son or daughter to do the same.

Chances are your son or daughter will be incredibly grateful for your support, but they might sometimes struggle to admit that.

It’s tough as a teenager or twenty-something to have to rely on your parents just as you are starting to feel more independent. It’s tough to feel like you’re missing out on normal life, too. And it’s scary and depressing and infuriating to have to deal with cancer.

So try not to react if your son or daughter sometimes takes out their emotions on you. This is a really difficult and confusing time for everyone.

Brothers and sisters

If you’ve got more than one child, keep an eye on how brothers and sisters are coping. That might sound like obvious advice, but it’s easy to lose focus when you’re dealing with cancer.

Brothers and sisters will go through a lot of the same emotions as you – but will often hide their feelings because they don’t want to cause more stress.

They might also feel like they’re not getting the same attention as usual. They might resent having to do extra work at home. They might be annoyed at missing out on things they usually do (and they’ll probably feel guilty about feeling like that). And their friends might act differently around them too.

It can be a rough time, and brothers and sisters sometimes deal with pent-up feelings by acting out of character. So it can help to:

  • Encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling
  • Be honest about your own feelings, and about how the treatment is going
  • Spend time with them when you can, just doing what you normally do and finding out what’s happening in their lives
  • Talk to their schools, so teachers can offer the right support
  • Plan a regular night where you get a takeaway or go out for a meal together
  • Let them know you appreciate the extra effort they’re putting in.

If you’re not the sort of family that’s honest about emotions, opening up to each other can be tricky. But, however awkward it feels at first, it usually helps to let each other know how you’re getting on.

Telling people

Letting your friends and family know about your child’s cancer is never easy. But the people close to you can be a huge source of support, and will probably want to know what’s happened so they can help out.

You might find it easier to let people know over the phone or by email. Or you might want to ask a friend or relative to pass on the news for you. However you choose to have that first conversation, people are likely to understand.

They might be desperate to help out too, so don’t be shy about asking for a hand if you need one. Trying to cope alone can actually make things harder.

And remember – if you get upset, you get upset. No one expects you to put on a brave face or to pretend everything is OK. You don’t need to tell everyone everything all at once, either.

And you can always ask someone else to pass on updates for you as your son or daughter’s treatment progresses. It’ll be one less thing for you to think about.

Dealing with work

If you work, it can be a struggle to keep up with your job when your mind is on your son or daughter and when you need to be with them during treatment.

It’s important to let your employer know about a cancer diagnosis as soon as possible, so you can work out what to do together. You might be entitled to:

  • Take time off without pay – this can’t be used for long-term care, though
  • Parental leave – possibly up to 18 weeks
  • Flexible working – working from home or working part-time, for instance.

Beware of Google!

Finding out more about cancer can be a really good idea. It means you know more about what to expect and about what your son or daughter is going through.

But before you open your phone and hit Google, remember to click carefully. There’s a lot of good information out there, but there are also plenty of scare stories – and it’s easy to let yourself get affected by these.

Doctors will be happy to recommend sites you can trust. We’ve included useful links throughout this site too. And remember that everyone’s cancer is different – so the best way to find out what’s really going on is to speak to doctors and to your son or daughter.