What About Me?
Caring for Siblings of Children with Cancer
It’s summer and you are excited about all the plans your family has for vacations, time with friends and siblings exploring uncharted territories, or backyard fun tent camping with smores, or even eventually working up the nerve to jump off that diving board in the town pool! But, just like an unannounced and unwelcome mosquito or bee bite, cancer decides it has other plans for your brother or sister, and your world turns drastically upside. Cancer sucks!
Siblings of children with cancer need emotional support to navigate and make sense of lifestyle changes when a family gets a cancer diagnosis. They often get caught in the middle of newly fluctuating time spent with a child battling cancer. Here we discuss ways to keep relationships between siblings and parents harmonious and balanced while going through the cancer journey.
Explaining a Cancer Diagnosis
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels
It can be scary and traumatizing for children to witness the declining health of their once energetic sibling. As a parent, it’s essential to take time to explain cancer to all members living with a patient because the reality is that cancer is not just some temporary virus or bacterial infection that might go away quickly. It’s understandable that, as a parent/caregiver, you might worry that your children will be too upset or that they are too young to understand. However, we can all agree that children in the 21st century are well equipped to quickly pick up on issues in a household, so explaining early and honestly is essential. All your children should be included in conversations about cancer to prevent any potential feelings of anger or mistrust towards parents.
Tools and Ideas to Talk to Your Child’s Siblings at Diagnosis:
For older siblings, explaining the science behind cancer may be an effective way to keep them in the loop and have a practical outlook on their brother or sister’s cancer diagnosis. Knowledge is power; the more children have, the more equipped they will be during cancer treatment. Keep siblings up to date on doctors’ appointments and outcomes. It might also be a good idea to practice role-playing with siblings so that they feel comfortable talking to a sibling with cancer. Siblings might isolate themselves from the family because they don’t feel included and don’t know exactly how to talk about it. Encourage regular conversation about cancer between siblings. Check out this great video created by National Geographic on the basic science behind cancer.
Books and Activities
Explaining complicated human body mechanisms might not be the best way to explain cancer to younger siblings. However, it’s good for them to know what’s going on at a very young age so they understand why they may not be getting the same attention before cancer. A great way to talk about cancer is through books and activities that cater to young readers. Here are some great ones to check out!
- My Sister Got Cancer: A Workbook for Siblings of Cancer Patients by Emmett B Kelly and Dr. Timothy F Brown
- Upside Down and Backwards: A Sibling’s Journey Through Childhood Cancer by Julie Greves CCLS, Katy Tenhulzen CCLS, & Fred Wilkinson LICSW
- Jamie’s Journey: Cancer from the Voice of a Sibling by Sharon Wozny and Melissa Bailey
- What Happens When My Sibling Has Cancer: A Book for the Brothers and Sisters of Pediatric Cancer Patients by Sara Olsher
Keeping Life Normal
The last thing you want siblings to feel is forgotten after a cancer diagnosis. From toddlers to teenagers, children can absorb feelings of loneliness and isolation when the normalcy of their lives is drastically changed. To make the transition easier and help siblings also understand why everyday routines need to change, it’s a good idea to explain early and often. Though it might be an extra balancing act for parents, it’s likely worth keeping school and extracurricular schedules as unaltered as possible because these are places children spend most of their days. For example, keeping tennis, swim or soccer practices a priority for your non-cancer child is essential so they know their needs are being met outside the home. It will make it much easier for them to adjust to changes in the home. It can be tricky for caregivers to shift energy between a sick child and paying attention to other siblings. There is help out there! Read the last paragraph! Without help, your biggest hurdle will be having enough energy to spare. However, children are resilient and help is available. Children will understand when attention needs to shift to a sick sibling, even if they may not like the idea of compromising their time. But even just a 10-minute conversation makes a difference.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, scheduling at least 15-30 minutes a day to spend uninterrupted time with your child can significantly affect how they cope with having a sibling with cancer.
- Have a conversation with a snack about their day and ask about the best and worst parts.
- Read a book together, watch a fascinating YouTube video, or have them show you something funny on social media.
- Take a quick walk around the neighborhood to get a break from being inside the home, where things have likely changed because of cancer care requirements.
Resources For Supporting Siblings
Siblings of children with special medical requirements that impact daily life will need time and patience to fully process and comprehend the new challenges and experiences that come with a cancer diagnosis. Even if they seem unimpacted or don’t show emotion towards the new environment, they likely feel something and may hide it internally from caregivers. Siblings may feel that their emotions are an extra burden. The best thing a parent or caregiver can do is to make time and remember to ask how siblings are, especially when they are quiet. The following informational resources are available to aid caregivers in answering questions and finding the right words to discuss this significant life change.
Guides and tips for supporting children through illness or injury of their siblings:
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Health Care
- Healthy Children.org
- Highmark Caring Place: Telling the Children
- Imaginary Friend Society Videos – for Kids Facing Cancer
Need Support for Siblings? Contact Us!
If you are a family with a child newly diagnosed with cancer, or if you know of a family who finds themselves in this challenging situation, please contact Here to Serve. Their team is ready to help families navigate this challenging new world in light of a childhood cancer diagnosis and provide support in many different ways. Here to Serve helps keep normalcy for siblings as part of their programs. They make sure that all the children are cared for and are able to make extracurricular activities happen for siblings. Please click on the Get Help button from our homepage.
By Sameera Rangwala, M.S., M.P.H
About the Author
Sameera Rangwala spent 15 years in the biotechnology industry. As a scientist and research professional, she uses her skills to blog and provides words of support to the cancer community.
All content in this blog is for informational and educational purposes only.