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Q. I have cancer and have been struggling to be a “normal” parent. My biggest challenge is disciplining my children because I feel guilty that I’m tired and not available as much to them. Is there any info out there about raising children while living with cancer?


Your question is one that we often hear. Without a doubt, cancer can impact your home life, and this disruption may cause a change in your children’s behaviors. Children want consistency and actually like guidelines, but it may be harder to set boundaries when you are not feeling well due to your diagnosis or its treatment.

There are some things that you can do to reduce stress, and perhaps make things a little easier in your home:

  • Give hugs and say “I love you”: The primary need of children is safety and security. Let them know that they are loved and heard, and that in no way did your cancer impact your love for them.
  • Allow yourself “me time”: As a parent – with cancer or not - it is vital that you remember to take care of yourself. Self-care is rejuvenating; it fuels the system both physically and emotionally. It is also a good lesson to impart to your children.
  • Be on the same page: Explain to your children, in age-appropriate terminology, your cancer and what the treatment will be. Use the word “cancer.”
  • Be available: Let your kids ask questions, and give honest responses.
  • Explain your treatment and what the side effects might be ahead of time: Prepare your children for the “what ifs.” Hair loss, fatigue or nausea may be side effects of your treatment. Maybe they want to meet your oncologist, or see where your treatment will be. Seeing, touching and feeling can make things less scary.
  • How you act and react is most likely what your children model their behavior on: A parent who reacts to their cancer by shutting down, having life revolve around the diagnosis, and creating a home life ensconced in cancer may have young ones mimicking that behavior. A parent who acknowledges the cancer, addresses the possible limitations, yet continues to live, is building resilience in their children.
  • Let the school know: The more people on your children’s team, the better. Inform the principal, guidance counselors and teachers of your diagnosis.
  • It is okay to ask for help: Others want to help, and letting them do so is a gift you give them. Take friends up on their offers. Think about what might help you, and ask.
  • Draw a “circle of love”: Younger kids are visual. Sit down with them and help them draw a picture of all the people who love them. Let them know that if you aren’t here for them, all these other people will make sure that they are “okay.”
  • Journaling: Older kids may have questions for you that they are uncomfortable asking. Give them a book they can jot their questions in and leave by the side of your bed. This will allow you to open up a meaningful discussion.
  • Schedule in some fun: Cancer is part of your life, but don’t allow it to be your family’s whole life. Watch a funny movie, dance and sing in the kitchen, work on crafts. Continue to grow, learn and explore as a family.

The most important thing to remember is that while you may have cancer, your children are so happy to have you there. As a parent, you are a symbol of safety and security, and just having you nearby can bolster your children’s sense of comfort.

Two good books that might be helpful to read for more information include:

  • Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent Is Sick by Paula Rauch, M.D. and Anna Muriel, M.D.
  • When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children by Wendy S. Harpham.
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