As a child, your family is your world; they provide comfort, security, and a daily routine. What if one day, that emotional protection was torn away without warning? What would you do? How would you cope? When a cancer diagnosis occurs in a family with multiple children, the focus will shift immediately to the sick child. Still, cancer touches the entire family and can profoundly affect the siblings of the patient.
Cancer Touches Many Lives
According to a study from Stanford Health, each year, roughly 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer. That is over 15,000 families yearly who are deeply affected by this devastating disease. About a third of these families report that they spend 40 hours a week on cancer care. That will alter family dynamics. Parents will have so many burdens during this time. Stress levels increase, everyday routines slip through the cracks as cancer treatments and hospital visits become the new reality. It’s important to remember the siblings. While their physical health may thankfully be intact, they might silently fight mental and emotional issues that go unnoticed.
The siblings of children with cancer will need support too. There will be so many emotions running through them, from sadness to anger and resentment. Most importantly, your children need to know they are loved unconditionally and that you understand the fears and emotions that are overwhelming them during this time. Please encourage them to share their feelings and not keep them bottled up inside.
Explain What Is Happening
All of your children will be looking to you for guidance. While your child with cancer will have a structured care plan in place and a health care team working to assist, you must take this time to also explain to your other children what is happening. As a parent, everything you experience will be even more traumatic for your children, who are still developing emotionally. Your children may feel scared and confused. Each child will process the news differently, be mindful of their age and maturity level when explaining cancer, and what to expect.
Infants to Toddlers (birth-3 years)
Explaining cancer to an infant will be impossible, but it is vital to be in your baby’s life as much as possible during these formative years. While away from home, check in with your young child via video chat or phone so that they can hear and see you. Remind your child that you will see them soon and when you do, hug and cuddle them and let them know how much you love them. Developmental milestones will fill your child’s life during this phase, from learning to walk to potty training. It is crucial to have as much of a set schedule as possible while working with your child on these monumental tasks.
Pre-Schoolers (4-5 years)
Provide a simple description about the cancer diagnosis, explain to your young child that their brother or sister is not feeling well and that doctors and nurses will help them feel better. Let them know that they did nothing to cause the cancer. Young children can pick up on the stress their family is going through, so your young child might begin to show signs of regression. Having accidents even after they have been toilet trained and increasing temper tantrums are not uncommon responses. Reach out to your child’s care team. They may have behavioral therapy resources available to help your other children.
School-Age Children (6-12 years)
As your child develops, they will have the mental capacity to understand and process more challenging news. Answer all the questions they have about cancer with honesty. The American Childhood Cancer Organization publishes Oliver’s Story, which helps answer many of the questions they might have about the disease. Give them a sense of importance by letting them help their sibling. Suggest they write or call if they cannot be with them during treatment. Have them create an art project or make a funny video that they can send to their brother or sister. Allow them to enjoy their daily activities, and tell them it’s OK to have fun even when their sibling is sick. Reassure that your family will be OK during this uncertainty.
The internet can be a useful tool in assisting the siblings of cancer patients. One excellent resource is SuperSibs from the organization Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. This website is specifically designed to offer support to brothers and sisters and provides an abundance of guidance for school-age children.
Teenagers (13-18 years)
As your child develops into a teenager, they will have the maturity level to process complex information even more. If possible, allow them to ask their questions to the cancer care team. Research to see if the hospital has support groups for siblings. Ask your teen to help out a little more at home, but let them focus on academic achievements and other extracurricular activities so that they still have a sense of normalcy in their daily life. Do be sure to monitor your older child’s behavior and look for any negative changes and seek professional guidance for additional support.
The National Cancer Institute provides a free downloadable booklet for teenagers who have a sibling with cancer. The information includes advice to teens from their peers who have experienced the same situation of having a brother or sister with cancer.
Reach Out for Assistance
The cancer your child is facing will have a ripple effect on your entire family. You will find the strength you never thought you had, but remember that you cannot get through this ordeal alone. Your young cancer patient and their siblings depend on you for guidance, so reach out to your support system for assistance. It will be challenging to keep life as “normal” as possible, but with help from family and friends, you can make things easier for your child or children who do not have cancer. Try to make their daily routines consistent as they were before the diagnosis. Make special one-on-one time for your other children, even if it’s just a short walk around the block or a 5-minute conversation at the kitchen table.
Here to Serve Can Help Your Entire Family
Taking moments to bring normalcy back into your life is one of the ways Here to Serve helps you and your children. Our Family Care Coordinators will take the burden off of parents and guardians, so the focus is only on your children’s needs. Let us provide services to you, such as meals, financial resources, housekeeping, running errands, or grocery shopping. Freeing up your schedule will help build special moments with all of your children.
By Chris Smith