Parenting and Cancer: “How do I do it?”

Being a parent is the best job in the world, but it is also a difficult job, even on the best of days. Throw in a cancer diagnosis and being a parent becomes much more difficult.

Following my own 2013 cancer diagnosis, I worried how my illness would affect my children. How would I explain my diagnosis to them? How could I be a good parent while going through chemotherapy at the same time? What could my husband and I do to keep their lives as normal as possible through my treatments?

Though facing a cancer diagnosis while raising children is not easy, remember you are not alone. In fact, there are many cancer patients out there who are trying to manage their children’s needs while managing their own. Approximately 25% of all cancer patients undergoing treatments have children under the age of 18 living with them. Yet parents get little advice on how to battle cancer while raising their children.

Talk to Your Child

Many times parents think they can protect their children by hiding potentially frightening or painful information from them. However, research has shown this strategy often backfires. Kids of all ages handle a parent’s cancer fight better when they parents include them in family discussions about diagnosis and treatment.

 In fact, it is imperative parents give their children age-appropriate information about their diagnosis and what it means. Reassure younger children that their parent’s cancer is not their fault and they cannot ‘catch’ their parent’s illness.

Older teens can given more detailed information about a parent’s diagnosis.  Teens may wish to accompany their parent to treatments, and including them may make them feel more in control and less overwhelmed.  

Give kids of all ages the opportunity to ask questions or express concerns. Keep an eye out for any signs of stress, anxiety, and emotional or behavioral issues that could potentially arise. If your child is struggling, consider bringing him or her to a therapist or a support group.

Keep Routines

One of the main causes of stress for cancer patient’s children is disruption of their normal routines. It is important for parents to do their best to keep their kids’ lives as normal as possible. Kids want reassurance that their lives will not change dramatically while their parents are ill. Try to keep them involved in their regular activities, including school clubs and sports.

Friends are Important

No matter your child’s age, maintaining social connections and friendships is important. Find ways to keep your child connected to their friends during your illness. It is good for kids to laugh and forget the seriousness of the ‘adult’ issues they are having to deal with.

Balance the Parent and Child’s Needs

Battling cancer is exhausting. Many people underestimate the toll treatment will take on them. Exhaustion and nausea are common side effects of treatments. How do you keep your kids’ lives normal when everything about your life feels abnormal?

Woman waiting, worried next to the seriously ill during therapy
Enlist Help

Now is not the time to go it alone. Friends, neighbors and relatives want to know what they can do to assist you. This is the perfect opportunity to give those wanting to help something concrete to do. Ask friends to have your child over for a play date. Ask for help in bringing your kids to and from school or activities.

Talk with teachers or counselors at school and let them know your family is going through a difficult time. Some children benefit from spending time with a trusted teacher or school counselor.

Give Your Child Tasks

Your children may feel helpless as they watch you battle cancer. Giving them tasks to do around the house can help them feel they have some control over the situation. While you do not want to overload your kids with new chores, tell them the family is going to pitch in and help you while you fight your cancer.

Dump some ‘To Dos’

Reduce your ‘to do’ list down to what is essential and necessary. What can you put on the back-burner for the time being? Remind yourself that it is more important to spend time and energy with your child than it is cooking or cleaning the house.


While a cancer battle is hard on the entire family, remember that by taking time to focus on what is really important, your family can actually become closer. Many families experience better conversations and communication as a result of discussing a cancer diagnosis. The positive effects of these discussions can lead to long-term benefits for family relationships. 


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