Anxiety in Parents of Children with Cancer
Recognizing Anxiety and Seeking Assistance
Childhood cancer diagnoses in 2022 alone totaled nearly 15,000. The American Cancer Society indicates a nearly 1% increase in cancer diagnoses yearly since 1975. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that every one of those children diagnosed with cancer has two parents in their lives (although, unfortunately, that’s not always the case). Research detailed below shows that because of how anxiety impacts the family and parents of children fighting cancer, that’s nearly 20,000 new cases of anxiety every year in the United States from parents with children battling cancer. That does not even include the child battling cancer, which would increase the number to about 30,000.
These cases of anxiety often go undiagnosed and untreated. Anxiety is a continuing pandemic that goes unrecognized and not discussed, and people generally do not seek help because they don’t know they have it. Cancer is not only a disease that ravages the patient’s health but also the mental health of those who love and care for them.
THE ANXIETY PANDEMIC
Anxiety is the great equalizer of mental health: even people who seem like they have it all together on the outside likely struggle with anxiety on the inside. National statistics bear this out: The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 19.1% of adults have experienced symptoms of various anxiety-related disorders over the past year alone. That means one in almost every five people you’ve encountered in life, whether you know them or not, are battling anxiety of some form. An estimated 31.1% of adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and of that 31.1%, 22.8% will end up having a serious impairment. These are stark overall numbers. Although Traumatic Stress is no longer categorized as an anxiety disorder in the 5th (and latest edition) Diagnostic Statistical Manuel (DSM-5), the co-morbidity is still prevalent enough to relate the two.
ANXIETY IN FAMILIES OF THE CRITICALLY ILL
Furthermore, as a parent, few can fathom the trauma-inducing anxiety of watching their child go through cancer treatments and fighting for their lives. The National Institute of Mental Health states that mothers generally range higher on the anxiety scale, very likely due to a woman’s higher biological capacity for heightened intuition and empathy. However, both mothers and fathers of chronically and seriously ill children trend higher on the anxiety scale. Parents of chronically and seriously ill children are nearly 95% more likely to face anxiety than those without an at-risk child. If you’re reading this correctly, it’s almost guaranteed that a parent with a child with cancer will experience anxiety. Additionally, there is nearly an increase of 30% in anxiety related to practical problems of daily life and parenting therein.
Make no mistake: Anxiety is a form of illness; mental illness, yes, but an illness, nonetheless. In a hypothetical situation of a family of 3, that means everyone in the house has some form of an illness. Anxiety can also cause physical disorders related to binge eating that can cause other illnesses, including, but not limited to:
- Higher cholesterol (higher risk of heart attack)
- Higher blood pressure (leading to hypertension and increased stroke risk)
- Body tremors
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
You may not be able to do all these things below but try to do at least half of them so you can care for your child the best way possible when you are able to relieve the anxiety you are experiencing.
- Learn about your disorder. Recognize the level of anxiety you are experiencing and know this is a mental disorder that requires medical attention.
- Take action and seek help. Talk to your doctor or mental health provider.
Seek psychotherapy and/or take medication as may be directed.
- Keep a journal.
- Join a support group, whether it be related to your child’s cancer or anxiety support group.
- Socialize when possible.
- Keep physically active, when possible.
- Avoid Alcohol.
- Eat healthily.
- Learn time management techniques.
HERE TO SERVE’S ROLE
At Here to Serve, we sincerely believe that caregiving for those impacted by cancer extends far beyond the physical needs of the patient. While we believe that the patient’s physical needs are important and part of our assistance, our mission as an organization is to serve patient families because we are convinced that serving the families through their journey serves the patients themselves. If the parents are taken care of, they can care for their children. Here to Serve helps you manage your time, eat healthy, be a part of a support community and provide resources for parents to receive therapy and counseling. Depending on the form of anxiety or the specific anxiety disorder, therapeutic strategies vary from case to case.
However, speaking as one has counseled those with anxiety, an almost universal coping strategy for most anxiety-related disorders is communal support, or as we say in the therapy world: “safe people.” We seek to surround our patient families with a network of safe people they can trust in their most desperate hour of need, with the expectation of alleviating the anxiety that comes with navigating their child suffering from cancer.
Author: Bryan Quintas, M.S. M.F.T.
Bryan Quintas is a Stage IV childhood cancer survivor. After battling cancer at 16, he has endured life-long effects from his treatments. Even so, he graduated from USC’s Annenberg School with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. He also holds a Master’s Degree from Fuller Seminary in Clinical Psychology, specifically in Marriage and Family Therapy. He has dedicated his life and career to helping others through life’s challenges.
Information on the Here to Serve website is for educational and informational purposes only. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical guidance.