Cancer | Helping Your Family Help You

Every person has a different way of handling news that a loved one has cancer. Many people react with shock or disbelief. Some are even angry when they’re first given the news. There is no “right way” for you or 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.

Path to improved well being

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 to try to spare them 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. They may think that they have done something that is causing problems in the family. This can happen even if they don’t understand what the problems are.

What you tell your child or children is up to you. Some parents choose not to tell their child about their cancer diagnosis. Others choose to tell only what they feel their child needs to know. How much you tell depends on your child’s age and how mature they are. It also depends on 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 someone about the best way to deliver this news. This could be your doctor, a counselor, or another expert. 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. It could be you, their other parent, a relative, or a family friend.

Try to stay positive. But also be realistic and honest when you’re talking to your child or children. It’s okay to tell your child that you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Assure him or her that you will tell them if anything changes.

How can I help my children cope with their feelings?

Your child might be afraid that he or she has somehow caused your illness. If this happens, you might ask your doctor to talk with your child. Your doctor can give a short, simple explanation of your diagnosis. This may help relieve some of your child’s fears.

You may want to enroll your child or children in a support group. There are groups for children who have a family member who has cancer. These groups offer children the chance to talk with their peers. They can share their fears and ask questions. An adult support group leader is also there. He or she is often a nurse, guidance counselor, or social worker. They can 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.

Try to keep your child’s routine as normal as possible. He or she needs your attention now more than ever. 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 they aren’t always sure how. Assign specific tasks to each person. One person in your family may be especially organized. Ask him or her to help you handle insurance and legal issues. Have another family member collect and write down questions 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. This way you’ll always have someone to call on. Give your children age-appropriate tasks and responsibilities. They will feel they’re offering some help, too.

Have an answer ready if a friend or family member asks, “How can I help?” Don’t hesitate to ask for help with everyday tasks. These could include cooking, cleaning, yard work, or driving children to their activities.

Your cancer treatment may keep you at home or in the hospital for an extended time. You may not be able to do your normal activities. These could include going to work or taking part in a favorite hobby. This 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. They can make it easier to get help and support from others. Online tools and phone apps are available to help cancer patients. They can help you manage information about your care. You can use them to give status updates on your health or treatment. Some help you organize help from volunteers such as family, friends, and others in the community. Some people even use them to set up fundraisers to help with the cost of cancer treatment.

Things to consider

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. Coping with your treatment will take a lot of time and energy. But it’s a good idea to make some important decisions while you’re still feeling well. You may want to talk with someone 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.) This could include your family, your doctor, a social worker, and/or a legal adviser.

An advance directive is a legal document. It describes the kind of medical 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 sick 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. Give copies to your family and your doctor.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if it’s best to tell my child I have cancer or not tell them?
  • How do I tell them? What do I say?
  • How do I reassure my child when I don’t know what’s going to happen?
  • How can I let my family help me during my cancer treatment?
  • Can you recommend any support groups for me, my family members, or my children?
  • Do you know of any social media tools or apps that might help me organize my life during treatment?


U.S. National Library of Medicine, Advance Directives