Throughout your child's illness, you'll be focused on comforting your child and helping him or her cooperate with treatment. You may also need to explain what's happening to your other children, answer relatives' questions and perhaps make alternate arrangements for work and childcare. All along the way, you'll be coming to terms with your own feelings and choices.
You'll likely experience a wide range of emotions from the time your child is diagnosed with cancer, throughout treatment and beyond. Here are some suggestions to help you deal with those feelings:
- Shock and confusion. When a doctor tells you your child has cancer, it's natural to lose focus on what else the doctor is saying and block out other, often complicated, information about your child's illness. Healthcare professionals understand this reaction, so don't hesitate to ask them to repeat information. To ensure that you're able to keep track of everything, take notes or record your meetings. You might also find it helpful to keep a notebook with important information as well as the business cards of the healthcare professionals you're consulting with.
- Denial. Most parents would like to believe that their child's cancer diagnosis is a mistake. For a short period, denial about the accuracy of the diagnosis may even help you adjust to the reality. But staying in denial for too long may delay the timely beginning of treatment and isolate your child and other family members when communication is important. Getting a second opinion or requesting additional information about a doctor or medical center's credentials can be helpful, but you must do this without delay. Healthcare professionals are generally willing to help arrange this.
- Hope. Hope plays an important role in the ability to cope, particularly in trying times. Talk with other parents whose children have had a similar diagnosis or treatment and have recovered. The knowledge that other children have recovered can inspire hope in knowing that your child has a good chance for recovery, too.
- Fear and anxiety. Some people find it helpful to talk about their fears and anxieties. Others prefer reading about the disease and treatment. Your child's treatment team includes professionals trained to help you gather information about all aspects of your child's illness: physical, emotional and financial. Enlist their support — they want to help you. Relatives and friends can often be a source of strength and understanding. However, some well-meaning loved ones may deny the illness, offer homemade remedies or disapprove of your choices. Enlist the assistance of professionals to deal with friends or relatives who aren't supportive.
- Anger. You will almost certainly feel angry at times. You might feel anger and frustration at your child's doctor or the entire medical profession for the difficult treatments, your health insurance company or the healthcare system. Maybe you're angry that your innocent child has to suffer or that God didn't protect your child from the disease. You may have no direct outlet for these angry feelings and misdirect them toward family members, co-workers or even strangers. Talking about anger with trusted friends, relatives and professionals is one way you can learn to accept these feelings and take constructive action when possible. Try seeking support from other parents in similar situations. When issues spark your anger, try to work with your child's treatment team to change situations or resolve problems. Physical activity, journal writing and finding private time and space to vent feelings are all good ways to cope and manage stress and anger.
- Guilt and blame. You may react to the stress of the cancer diagnosis by looking for a cause or for someone or something to blame. Almost all parents experience guilt. Maybe you think you passed on bad genes or did something wrong that caused the cancer. Or you blame yourself for not paying more attention to your child's symptoms and seeking a medical evaluation sooner. As hard as it is to accept, you may never know what caused your child’s cancer. First, acknowledge your feelings of guilt. Then get support from healthcare professionals to gain a better understanding of your child's illness. Psychologists, social workers and spiritual advisers may also help you come to terms with your child's diagnosis. If friends or family members blame a family member for the cancer diagnosis, remind yourself and your family that no one is to blame. It's important to remember that they're trying to make sense out of the situation too, however wrong or inappropriate their reasoning.
- Sadness and loss. It's normal to feel a sense of loss. You may realize that life for your child and family will never be the same. Allow yourself to feel sad. Over time, you'll find ways to adapt and gradually develop a new sense of normalcy for you and your family. However, if you feel consumed by sadness or are unable to function, seek professional help. It's important to work through your feelings so you can help your child cope and you can continue to manage other aspects of family life and work.
- Doubts about religious and spiritual beliefs. Your child's illness may seem unfair. The seeming injustice can lead you to question your views on the meaning, purpose and value of life or your spiritual beliefs and relationship with God. You may feel empty, cynical or discouraged. Explore these feelings with a counselor or a spiritual adviser.
Read the PDF, Coping With a Childhood Cancer Diagnosis, for more on coping.
You and your co-parent may each react in different ways after the initial diagnosis. Every person is an individual with his or her own way of expressing emotions. There is no right way to feel or react. Respect each other’s coping styles to avoid blame and criticism.
Both you and your co-parent can be involved in your child’s treatment. Discuss responsibilities and expectations early and discuss how your roles may change. Caring for a sick child is mentally and physically challenging and exhausting. By sharing responsibilities, you are allowing each other time to rest and recuperate. If only one parent takes on the bulk of the responsibilities related to the child’s care, that parent may start to feel resentment toward the co-parent or feel that there is a widening gap in their relationship.
You and your co-parent may disagree at times about how to approach your child’s treatment and care. Resolving these types of disagreements might be difficult, but it is important to do so in the interest of supporting your child. Resolving differences should not be thought of as a win-or-lose situation but as a collaborative means to provide the best care for your child. Do not discuss or argue about your child or issues related to his or her illness in front of him or her. Try to present a united front.
As treatment progresses, check in with your co-parent and ask how he or she is feeling. Always keep the lines of communication open. If you find yourself struggling with your relationship, reach out to members of the healthcare team for a referral to a family therapist.
- Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s free booklet, Coping With Childhood Leukemia and Lymphoma