Cancer | Helping Your Family Help You

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How will my family react to the news that I have cancer?

Every person has a different way of handling news that a loved one has cancer. Many people react with shock, disbelief and even anger when they're first given the news. Keep in mind that there is no "right way" for you and your family to feel about your diagnosis. One of the best ways for families to deal with their feelings is to share them with each other.

Should I tell my children that I have cancer?

Many parents don't want to burden their child or children with worries and fears about their illness. They keep the truth from their child or children in hopes of sparing them some pain. But even the youngest children can sense when something is wrong. If they don't know the truth, they may imagine that things are even worse than they are. Children (especially very young children) tend to see themselves as the center of the world, and they may think that they have done something that is causing problems in the family.

Some parents choose not to tell their child or children about their cancer diagnosis. Others choose to tell only what they feel their child needs to know. How much you tell depends upon your child's age and maturity, and how much you feel he or she can handle.

How do I tell my children that I have cancer?

Before telling your child or children that you have cancer, you may want to talk with your doctor, a counselor or another expert about the best way to deliver this news. If you decide to join a support group, other members may be able to offer advice and suggestions as well.

Prepare to offer your child or children a lot of reassurance. Children's questions and concerns will probably center on how their lives might change. They will want to know who is going to take care of them and what is going to happen. Assure them that someone will be looking after them, whether it's you, a relative or friend of the family.

Try to stay positive, but also be realistic and honest with your child or children. It's okay to tell your child that you don't know exactly what's going to happen and promise to keep him or her informed if anything changes.

How can I help my children cope with their feelings?

If your child fears that he or she has somehow caused your illness, you might ask your doctor to talk with your child and give a short, simple explanation of your diagnosis.

You may also want to enroll your child or children in a support group for children who have a family member who has cancer. These groups offer children an opportunity to talk with their peers about their fears and questions. An adult support group leader – often a nurse, guidance counselor or social worker – is also there to answer questions and help children find useful ways to cope with a parent's illness. Your doctor can suggest ways to find a support group, or you may contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society. The National Cancer Institute also offers support group information. (See “Other Organizations”.)

Try to keep your child's routine as normal as possible. Your child needs your attention now more than ever, so continue to spend time together as a family. Set boundaries and enforce rules just as you always have. Ask your child how he or she is handling your illness. If you feel that your child is not coping well, seek help from your doctor or a counselor.

How can my family members help me?

Asking your family members for help during this time benefits both you and them. Members of your family want to give you their support, but aren't always sure how. Assign specific tasks to each individual. If one person in your family is particularly organized, ask him or her to help you handle insurance and legal issues, for example. Have a family member collect and write down any questions that you and your family have for your doctor. Take this person with you when you visit your doctor. Your family member can make sure all of the questions are asked and record the answers. You might ask several people to provide different kinds of emotional support so you'll always have someone to call on. Give your children age-appropriate tasks and responsibilities so they feel they're offering some help, too.

If a friend or family member says, "Tell me how I can help," have an answer ready. Don't hesitate to ask for help with everyday tasks like cooking, cleaning, yard work and driving the children to their activities.

Your cancer treatment may keep you at home or in the hospital for an extended period of time. Not being able to do your normal activities (such as going to work or participating in a favorite hobby) may make you feel useless or "stir crazy." Ask friends and family members to set up a schedule of visitors who can help you pass the time.

Remember, by accepting the help of others, you'll have more time to focus on getting better.

A growing number of social media resources provide services for people who have cancer to more easily get help and support from others. Online tools and phone apps are available to help cancer patients manage information about their care, give status updates, and organize help from volunteers such as family, friends and others in the community.

What legal issues do I need to discuss with my family?

When you've been diagnosed with cancer, you first want to concentrate on getting better and coping with your treatment. But it's a good idea to make some important decisions with your family and with your doctor while you're still feeling well. You may want to talk with your family, your doctor, a social worker from a local hospital and/or a legal advisor about the kind of care you'd like to receive if you get very sick or become terminally ill. (Being terminally ill usually means that you have only a few weeks or months to live.)

An advance directive is a legal document that describes the kind of treatment you would want depending on how sick you are. Advance directives usually tell your doctor that you don't want certain types of life-saving treatment. However, they can also say that you do want a certain treatment no matter how ill you are.

A durable power of attorney (DPA) for health care is one kind of advance directive. A DPA names a trusted individual who will make health care decisions for you. A DPA becomes active any time you are unconscious or unable to make medical decisions for yourself.

A do not resuscitate (DNR) order is another kind of advance directive. A DNR is a request not to be given cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops or if you stop breathing. (Unless they are given other instructions, hospital staff will try to help all patients whose heart has stopped or who have stopped breathing.) Most people who die in a hospital have had a DNR order written for them.

Advance directives do not have to be complicated legal documents. Your doctor may be able to provide a simple form for you to fill out. There are also some computer software packages that offer legal forms. Remember, anything you write by yourself or using a software package should follow the laws in your state. Have the documents notarized, if possible, and give copies to your family and your doctor.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 02/14
Created: 06/02

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