Feature Archive

When Someone in Your Family Has Cancer

A Message for Children

WebMD Feature

When someone in your family has cancer, it may mean many things to you. Other people who have been through it say it can be a lot of things: confusing, scary, lonely, and much more. You may find that you have feelings that are hard to understand and sometimes hard to share.

This article tells about the experiences of others who have had a family member with cancer. Some of what you read, especially about feelings, may not make sense or seem right to you. It may even seem silly. Or it may seem a lot like what you've felt and what has happened to you.

Remember, feelings aren't "good" or "bad." They are just feelings and are normal and shared by many others. And even if you try to wish them away or ignore them, or if you feel guilty or ashamed of them, they'll still be there.

A good way to handle feelings is to admit you have them and to talk about them. Talk with your parents, other adults, or your friends. Or you can talk with others who have had a family member with cancer. You'll be surprised how much better you feel once you have talked about your feelings.

People to Help You, Besides Your Parents

For Support and Sharing Feelings:

  • Grandparents, aunts, uncles
  • Neighbors
  • Teachers, guidance counselors
  • Ministers, rabbis, priests
  • Coaches, youth, or scout leaders
  • Special adult friends
  • Older brother or sister
  • Friends your own age
For Support and Information About Cancer:
  • Someone at the hospital -- a doctor, nurse, social worker, or other person treating your family member
  • Family doctor
  • School nurse
It May Be Hard to Talk About Cancer

Sometimes it's not easy to talk about what you feel or about problems. Not only is it hard to say what you feel, but other people may not be ready or able to listen or to be helpful. Some of your questions may upset your parents because they don't know how to answer or because your worries remind them of their own. It's possible that your parents may not be ready to talk when you are. They may need more time to sort things out in their own minds before they can talk with you. Some parents, no matter how much they love their children, don't know how to talk about upsetting things with them. If your parents aren't able to talk with you about your feelings, they may be able to help you find someone you can talk to, like someone at the hospital, a relative or friend, or a teacher or school counselor.

Here is what some others who have had a parent or brother or sister with cancer have said about what they felt.

Being Scared
Feeling Guilty
Feeling Neglected
Feeling Lonely
Answering Questions
Dealing With Side Effects
Changing

Being Scared

"I really didn't understand much at first. Mostly I was afraid that she might die, because my sister and I are pretty close. I was really scared, and I also thought it might be catching or something." -Laura, age 13

The girl who said this had a sister with cancer, but it can be just as scary when a parent has cancer. When someone is first diagnosed with cancer, it may seem as though your whole world has fallen apart. You may not know much about it, so you may remember what you've heard about cancer before. Being afraid someone might die from cancer is normal, especially if the only people with cancer that you have known have died. And being afraid that you or another person in the family might catch it is normal, too. Why? Because there are so many things you can catch from someone else such as a cold or the flu. It's easy to think cancer may be the same, but doctors and other scientists know that you cannot catch cancer from anyone. Learning about cancer can help you. You will feel less afraid when you know more about the disease.

Hearing about treatments and tests can be hard. Some people find it's scary just to think about the needles and blood tests and radiation treatments. Sometimes, learning about these things and talking to the person with cancer (or someone else) about what it's really like is the best way to deal with these fears. If a trip to the hospital is possible, it might help.

"One day I went to the clinic with my brother for his treatment. I saw the machine that he gets radiation from and how IVs work, and I met his doctor and the nurses. I saw lots of other kids who didn't have any more hair than he does. Now, when he goes to the clinic, I don't have to wonder what he's going through. I know what it's like. It's no fun for a little kid like him, but it's not as bad as I thought." -Matthew, age 14

Sometimes, when one parent has cancer, the other one spends a lot of time at the hospital and away from the rest of the family. Having their parents at the hospital instead of at home can be scary to some young people. They may worry about their parents and need to have someone special to call to make sure that things are all right.