Dealing with the Diagnosis of Your Child
When a child or teen is diagnosed with cancer, families and parents will face and need to cope with many problems. Here we offer ideas for coping and moving forward after your child’s diagnosis
Cancer Affects the Entire Family
Cancer never affects only one person; it affects families, especially when it’s a child. When a child or teen is diagnosed with cancer it’s a blow to the parents, siblings, and others who love them. The cancer creates a crisis in the life of each family member. Normal daily life is changed. Parents must be away from work. Siblings might need to be cared for by relatives or neighbors. The ill child (the patient) becomes the major focus of family time and attention.
Parents should be given detailed information about the diagnosis and treatment. They need to be told about the short- and long-term effects of treatment. They may have to think about things like the risk of heart or lung damage, second cancers, or fertility problems that their child may someday face. They will have to make tough decisions and must understand the treatment plan well enough to feel right about giving permission for tests and procedures. They have to sign treatment consent forms and make important decisions about what’s best for their child. This is a lot to ask.
To add to the stress, all of this happens in a very short time. In the first days and weeks after diagnosis, parents who have been through it describe feeling as if they are on an emotional roller coaster, or in a bad dream. Just about all parents going through this difficult time seem to have the same feelings. But what parents say or do to express these feelings differs. How they handle their emotions depends on their own life experiences, cultural differences, and their personal coping styles when faced with major stress.
Coping with your child’s cancer diagnosis
Parents express shock, disbelief, fear, guilt, sadness, anxiety, and anger. There are no “normal” reactions to this abnormal situation, so almost any feelings could be considered normal for parents and other family members. But parents and families find a way to adjust to the changes in their lives. They usually find ways to maintain some quality of life for themselves, the rest of their family, and their sick child. If you feel overwhelmed, you need to talk to someone on the cancer treatment team about your concerns. It’s important that you do not let feelings distract you from the many tasks you must face when your child has cancer.
Some of the most common reactions are:
Shock is when information is so devastating that it overwhelms our mind’s ability to deal it. Many parents describe feeling numb, confused or being unable to hear, remember, or think clearly when the doctor explains their child’s diagnosis or treatment plan. This numbness helps us slowly get used to painful feelings. It gives us time to absorb strong emotions and face hard decisions.
Disbelief and denial
When parents are first told their child has cancer, it seems unbelievable. Their child may not seem sick enough, or look sick enough, to have such a serious disease. Maybe the doctor or the lab made a mistake. Are these the right doctors, the right hospital? Should we get a second opinion? Denial is normal as long as it does not impede your child from getting timely treatment.
Guilt is a frequent response from parents. One of a parent’s main tasks is to protect their child from danger so you may question what could have caused your child’s cancer or how you failed to protect their child. Parents may also have guilt about not paying enough attention to their child’s symptoms. You may worry that you didn’t get to the doctor quickly enough, or that you didn’t demand to have a specialist see your child when the symptoms didn’t go away. It’s normal to try to understand the causes of a problem, but parents are never at fault for their child’s cancer.
Fear and anxiety
It’s normal to feel anxious and fearful when facing unfamiliar events and outcomes that can’t be controlled. Doctors cannot guarantee exactly how your child will respond to cancer treatment, and the fear of death is real. Trusting doctors to care for your child with such a serious illness is frightening. Major changes in daily life are upsetting, too, and parents worry that they might not be up to all that will be asked of them. You may be worrying about your job, financial obligations, and other children.
Sadness and depression
Of course parents feel sad when their child is diagnosed with cancer. Every parent has hopes and dreams that their children’s lives will be healthy, happy, and carefree. Cancer changes that dream. Parents will grieve the loss of some of those hopes. Parents may find it hard to eat or sleep at first. They may not have the energy they need for routine daily tasks or for facing all they need to do. Unfortunately, parents go through these painful and unpleasant feelings again and again throughout their child’s illness.
The fact that cancer is threatening the life of an innocent child often makes parents angry at the cruel and random injustice of life. When someone we love is attacked, even by illness, it’s easy to want to blame someone, or ask “Why me?” or “Why us?” Questioning God or a world in which children become ill and suffer can cause rage. Anger can be misdirected at those who are closest to us or the doctors who are trying to help our child. Exploding an angry outburst is not helpful, but anger is just one painful emotion.
What can help you cope with distressing emotions?
- Accepting that your reaction is normal and most of these emotional pass with time.
- Believe that you are capable of managing this crisis and creating a “new normal” for your family.
- Talking with a POST Care Team member about your feelings.
- Seeking comfort from others.
- Asking a family member or friend to go with you to doctor visits and take notes.
- Taking notes or recording (with permission) meetings with doctors, then going back over them in your own time.
- Knowing it’s ok to ask questions, seek clarification or ask staff to repeat information.
- Talking to other parents about have they’ve coped or dealt with feelings like this.
- Expressing feelings by keeping a journal.
- Asking for support from each other, family, or friends.
- Taking care of themselves: eating right and getting rest.
- Attending to their own needs, whether those needs are for medicines or other help with physical and/or mental health.
What can help you get through the disbelief stage?
- Asking all your questions and getting satisfactory answers.
- Seeking reliable sources for more information about diagnosis and treatment.
- Checking out the medical center and qualifications of the treatment team.
- Asking for help in getting a second opinion.
What can help you cope with fear?
- Developing trust in treatment team members.
- Using strategies to reduce anxiety or tension like deep breathing or mindfulness.
- Taking as much control as possible of everyday events and decisions.
- Accepting that some things cannot be controlled.
- Finding strength in religious beliefs or spiritual practices.
What can help you deal with guilt?
- Accepting that they may never know what caused their child’s cancer.
- Realizing that finding a reason for something isn’t going to change the fact that it has happened.
What can help you deal with sadness, depression, and grief?
- Expressing their feelings, such as talking, writing, and/or letting yourself cry sometimes in private spaces such as the car or the shower.
What can help you deal with anger?
- Accepting that anger is a normal part of this process.
- Understanding the root of the anger in each situation.
- Expressing anger in a healthy way.
- Finding solutions when anger is justified.
- Discussing angry feelings with support staff or mental health care providers.
- Seeking physical release of tension (such as walking, exercising, or sports).