Your Roles in the Family
Up: Cancer and Your Family
Cancer will change your life and the lives of people around you.
- Your routines may be
- Roles and duties may
- Relationships can be
strained or strengthened.
- Dealing with money and
insurance can cause problems.
- You may need to live
with someone else for a while.
- You may need help with
chores and errands.
Most people find that if
they, their friends, and family talk about the cancer and how it makes
them feel, they feel closer to each other.
Families are not all alike.
Your family may include a spouse (husband or wife), children, and parents. Or
maybe you think of your partner or close friends as your family. In this book,
"family" refers to you and those who love and support you.
Cancer affects the whole
family, not just the person with the disease. How are the people in your
family dealing with your cancer? Maybe they are afraid or angry, just like
When you first find out you
have cancer and are going through treatments, day-to-day routines may change
for everyone. For example, someone in your family may need to take time off
work to drive you to treatments. You may need help with chores and errands.
How your family reacts to
your cancer may depend a lot on how you've faced hard times in the past.
Some families find it easy to
talk about cancer. They may easily share their feelings about the changes that
cancer brings to their lives. Other families find it harder to talk about
cancer. The people in these families may be used to solving problems alone and
not want to talk about their feelings.
Families that have gone
through divorce or had other losses may have even more trouble talking about
cancer. As one woman with lung cancer said,
"Talking about my cancer was rough at first. My husband and I divorced five
years ago, so my mom had to move in and help me with the boys. Eventually, I
was able to tell my ex-husband about my cancer, and he helped the boys
understand. Our family has been through a lot, and we'll get through this,
too. To me, the only constant in life is change."
If your family is having
trouble talking about feelings, think about getting some help. Your doctor or
nurse can refer you to a counselor who can help people in your family talk
about what cancer means to them. Many families find that, even though it can
be hard to do, they feel close to each other when they deal with cancer
When someone in a family has
cancer, everyone takes on new roles and responsibilities. For example, a child
may be asked to do more chores or a spouse or partner may need to help pay
bills, shop, or do yard work. Family members sometimes have trouble adjusting
to these new roles.
Adjusting to Your New
Many families have trouble
getting used to the role changes that may be required when a loved one has
can reduce the amount of money your family has to spend or save. If you are
not able to work, someone else in your family may need to get a job. You and
your family will need to learn more about health insurance and find out what
your insurance will pay for and what you need to pay for. Most people find it
stressful to keep up with money matters. (For more information about cancer
and your work, see "Living Each Day".)
People with cancer sometimes need to change where they live or whom they live
with. Now that you have cancer, you may need to move in with someone else to
get the care you need. This can be hard because you may feel that you are
losing your independence, at least for a little while. Or, you may need to
travel far from home for treatment. If you have to be away from home for
treatments take a few little things from home with you. This way, there will
be something familiar even in a strange place.
Daily activities. You
may need help with duties such as paying bills, cooking meals, or coaching
your children's teams. Asking others to do these things for you can be hard. A
young father in treatment for colon cancer said,
I came home from the hospital, I wanted to be in charge again but simply
didn't have the energy. It was so hard to ask for help! It was easier to
accept help when I realized that my kids felt that they were contributing to
Developing a Plan
Even when others offer to
help, it is important to let people know that you can still do some things for
yourself. As much as you are able, keep up with your normal routine by making
decisions, doing household chores, and working on hobbies that you enjoy.
Asking for help is not a sign
of weakness. Think about hiring someone or asking for a volunteer. Health
insurance sometimes pays for people to help with household chores. You might
be able to find a volunteer through groups in your community.
Paid help or volunteers may
be able to help with:
- physical care, such as
bathing or dressing
- household chores, such as
cleaning or food shopping
- skilled care, such as
giving you special feedings or medications
Just as you need time
for yourself, your family members also need time to rest, have fun, and take
care of their other duties. Respite care is a way people can get the time they
need. In respite care, someone comes to your home and takes care of you while
your family member goes out for a while. Let your doctor or social worker know
if you want to learn more about respite care. (See "People Helping People.")
scared by my husband's cancer. He had always taken care of me and we did
everything together. I was afraid I would not be strong enough to help him
through his recovery. I was afraid that he might not recover. I was afraid to
talk about my fears with him because I did not want to upset him."
Your husband, wife, or
partner may feel just as scared by cancer as you do. You both may feel
anxious, helpless, or afraid. You may find it hard to be taken care of by
someone you love.
People react to cancer in
different ways. Some cannot accept that cancer is a serious illness. Others
try too hard to be "perfect" caregivers. And some people refuse to talk about
cancer. For most people, thinking about the future is scary.
It helps if you and the
people close to you can talk about your fears and concerns. You may want to
meet with a counselor who can help both of you talk about these feelings.
Including your spouse or
partner in treatment decisions is important. You can meet with your doctor
together and learn about your type of cancer. You might want to find out about
common symptoms, treatment choices, and their side effects. This information
will help both of you plan for the future.
Your spouse or partner will
also need to know how to help take care of your body and your feelings. And,
even though it is not easy, both of you should think about the future and make
plans in case you die from your cancer. You may find it helpful to meet with a
financial planner or a lawyer.
Everyone needs to feel needed
and loved. You may have always been the "strong one" in your family, but now
is the time to let your spouse or partner help you. This can be as simple as
letting the other person fluff your pillow, bring you a cool drink, or read to
Feeling sexually close
to your partner is also important. You may not be interested in sex when you
are in treatment because you feel tired, sick to your stomach, or in pain. But
when your treatment is over, you may want to have sex again. Until then, you
and your spouse or partner may need to find new ways to show that you care
about each other. This can include touching, holding, hugging, and cuddling.
(See also "Dealing with a New Self-Image.")
Your spouse or partner
needs to keep a sense of balance in his or her life. He or she needs time to
take care of personal chores and errands. Your partner will also need time to
sort through his or her own feelings about cancer. And most importantly,
everyone needs time to rest. If you do not want to be alone when your loved
one is away, think about getting respite care or asking a friend to stay with
you. (See "Caregivers".)
Even though your children
will be sad and upset when they learn about your cancer, do not pretend that
everything is okay. Even very young children can sense when something is
wrong. They will see that you do not feel well or are not spending as much
time with them as you used to. They may notice that you have a lot of visitors
and phone calls or that you need to be away from home for treatment and
What the family talks about in the evening, the child will talk about in
Telling Children About
Children as young as 18
months old begin to think about and understand what is going on around them.
It is important to be honest and tell your children that you are sick and the
doctors are working to make you better. Telling them the truth is better than
letting them imagine the worst. Give your children time to ask questions and
express their feelings. And if they ask questions that you can't answer, let
them know that you will find out the answers for them.
When you talk with your
children, use words and terms they can understand. For example, say "doctor"
instead of "oncologist" or "medicine" instead of "chemotherapy." Tell your
children how much you love them and suggest ways they can help with your care.
Share books about cancer that are written for children. Your doctor, nurse, or
social worker can suggest good ones for your child.
Let other adults in your
children's lives know about your cancer. This includes teachers, neighbors,
coaches, or other relatives who can spend extra time with them. These other
adults may be able to take your children to their activities, as well as
listen to their feelings and concerns. Your doctor or nurse can also help by
talking with your children and answering their questions.
How Children May React
Children can react to cancer
in many different ways. For example, they may:
- be confused, scared, or
- feel guilty and think that
something they did or said caused your cancer
- feel angry when they are
asked to be quiet or do more chores around the house
- miss the amount of
attention they are used to getting
- regress and behave as they
did when they were much younger
- get into trouble at school
or at home
- be clingy and afraid to
leave the house
that my Mom has cancer, everything is changed. I want to be with her, but I
want to hang out with my friends, too. She needs me to help with my little
brother, but what I really want to do is play football like I used to."
Teenagers and a Parent's
Teens are at a time in their
lives when they are trying to break away and be independent from their
parents. When a parent has cancer, breaking away can be hard for them to do.
They may become angry, act out, or get into trouble.
Try to get your teens to talk
about their feelings. Tell them as much as they want to know about your
cancer. Ask them for their opinions and, if possible, let them help you make
Teens may want to talk with
other people in their lives. Friends can be a great source of support,
especially those who also have serious illness in their family. Other family
members, teachers, coaches, and spiritual leaders can also help. Encourage
your teenage children to talk about their fears and feelings with people they
trust and feel close to. Some towns even have support groups for teens whose
parents have cancer.
What children of all
ages need to know:
- Nothing your child
did, thought, or said caused you to get cancer.
- You can't catch
cancer from another person. Just because you have cancer does not mean
that others in your family will get it, too.
- Just because you
have cancer does not mean you will die from it. In fact, many people
live with cancer for a long time.
- Scientists are
finding many new ways to treat cancer.
About living with
cancer in the family
- Your child is not
alone. Other children have parents who have cancer.
- It is okay to be
upset, angry, or scared about your illness.
- Your child can't do
anything to change the fact that you have cancer.
- Family members may
act differently because they are worried about you.
- You will make sure
that your children are taken care of, no matter what happens to you.
About what they can
- They can help you by
doing nice things like washing dishes or drawing you a picture.
- They should still go
to school and take part in sports and other fun activities.
- They can talk to
other adults such as teachers, family members, and religious leaders.
Your relationship with your
adult children may change now that you have cancer. You may:
- Ask your adult children to
take on new duties, such as making health care decisions, paying bills, or
taking care of the house.
- Ask your children to
explain some of the information you've received from your doctor or to go
with you to doctor's visits so they can also hear what the doctors are
- Rely on your adult
children for emotional support. For instance, you may ask them to act as
"go-betweens" with friends or other family members.
- Want your adult children
to spend a lot of time with you. This can be hard, especially if they have
jobs or young families of their own.
- Find it hard to
receive--rather than give--comfort and support from your children.
- Feel awkward when your
children help with your physical care, such as feeding or bathing.
As the adult daughter of a
woman with ovarian cancer said,
was always the rock in the family. Whenever any of us had a problem, we could
go to her for help. Now we had to help her. It was almost as though we were
the parents and she was the child. To make it even harder, we had our own
children to take care of and jobs to go to."
Talking With Your Adult
It is important to talk about
cancer with your adult children, even if they get upset or worry about you.
Include them when talking about your treatment. Let them know your thoughts
and wishes, in case you do not recover from your cancer.
Even adult children worry
that their parents will die. When they learn that you have cancer, adult
children may realize how important you are to them. They may feel guilty if
they haven't been close with you. They may feel bad if they cannot spend a lot
of time with you because they live far away or have other duties. Some of
these feelings may make it harder to talk to your adult children. If you have
trouble talking with your adult children, ask your doctor or nurse to suggest
a counselor you can all talk with.
Make the most of the time you
have with your adult children. Talk about how much you mean to each other.
Express all your feelings--not just love but also anxiety, sadness, and anger.
Don't worry about saying the wrong thing. It's better to share your feelings
rather than hide them.
One who conceals
grief finds no remedy for it.
Cancer Risk for the
Children of People Who Have Cancer
Now that you have cancer,
your children may wonder about their chance of getting it as well. Suggest
they talk with a doctor about their risk of getting cancer.
Gene tests can be a way to
find out if a person is at higher risk of getting cancer. A higher risk for
some types of cancer are passed from parent to child. For instance, the
daughter of a woman with breast cancer may be at risk for getting the same
disease. But chances are that her risk is no different than other women her
age. If concerned, however, children should talk with a doctor about their
risk of getting cancer.
Although some gene tests can
be helpful, they do not always give people the kinds of answers they are
seeking. Talk to your doctor if you or someone in your family wants to learn
more about gene testing for cancer. He or she can refer you to a person who is
specially trained in this area. These experts can help you think through your
choices and answer your questions.
Since people are living much
longer these days, many people with cancer may also be caring for their aging
parents. For example, you may help your parents with their shopping or take
them to doctor. Your aging parents may even live with you.
You have to decide how much
to tell your parents about your cancer. Your decision may depend on how well
your parents can understand and cope with the news. If your parents are in
good health, think about talking with them about your cancer.
Now that you have
cancer, you may need extra help caring for your parents. You may need help
only while you are in treatment. Or you may need to make long-term changes in
your parents' care. Talk with your family members, friends, health
professionals, and community agencies to see how they can help. (See "People Helping People")
not protect yourself by a fence, but rather by your friends.|
Once friends learn of your
cancer, they may begin to worry. Some will ask you to tell them ways to help.
Others will wonder how they can help but may not know how to ask. You can help
your friends cope with the news by letting them help you in some way. Think
about the things your friends do well and don't mind doing. Make a list of
things you think you might need. This way, when they ask you how they can be
of help, you'll be able to share your list of needs and allow them to pick
something they're willing to do.
Sample list of need:
- Baby-sit on days that I go
- Prepare frozen meals for
my "down days."
- Put my name on the prayer
list at my place of worship.
- Bring me a few books from
the library when you go.
- Visit for tea or coffee
when you can.
- Let others know that it is
alright to call or visit me (or let others know that I'm not ready for
visitors just yet).
Families come in many
forms. Some are husband, wife, and children. Others are life partners.
Still others are groups of people who love and support each other.
No matter what form
your family takes, your cancer will not only change your life, but also
the lives of those around you.
Cancer impacts families
in different ways.
- Talking about cancer
can be hard for some families.
- Routines of family
life may be messed up.
- Roles and duties
within the family will change.
- Relationships can be
both strained and strengthened.
- Dealing with money
and insurance often become hard.
- You may need to
change where you live and with whom, at least for a while.
As you think about how
cancer has changed your life and your family's life, think about
reaching outside your family to get help.
- You may need help
with household chores and errands.
- Respite care can
give your regular caregivers a much-needed break.
- Counseling and
support groups can help your family deal with the issues that cancer
Most families find that
being honest and open about the cancer, about the problems that arise,
and about their feelings, helps them handle the changes that cancer