When a child falls ill with cancer, it takes a toll on the whole family. All too often, parents and healthy siblings have needs that get ignored—their focus is elsewhere. That’s why, when radiology and oncology experts are taking care of the patient, we turn our attention to siblings and parents.
What is a kid to do when Mom and Dad are overwhelmed and often unavailable? How can a family cope with one child’s cancer while the world keeps spinning for the rest?
After years of working with patient families, a few themes that can contribute to whole-family wellbeing have emerged: communication, outreach and patience.
Keeping the Lines of Communication Open
Just remembering to check in with siblings can make a big difference. Ask how they are, how they are feeling and what is going on in their lives. Furthermore, ask about their fears and concerns. As parents, we may want to shield our other children from thinking about illness, cancer or death. But when a sibling has cancer, other kids in the family will try to make sense of it no matter how much they understand.
In some cases, siblings may feel guilty, scared or confused. If parents don’t ask, though, their kids may not say what’s on their minds—no matter how easily a parent could resolve the issue or take care of the concern. On the whole, it’s best to just keep encouraging an open discussion.
Outreach and Inclusion Matter
Research on children whose siblings suffered from cancer has revealed that kids want to be included. In age-appropriate ways, siblings should be able to take part in discussions with or about the sibling with cancer. When possible, they should be incorporated into family meetings, visits to the ill sibling, support group sessions and appointments with caregivers.
Siblings want to feel aware of what is going on with their sick brothers or sisters so that they know what to expect. They also want to take an active role in the sibling’s life—helping him or her feel like a kid instead of a patient. Remember, they’re all part of the family unit, and they want to feel like it!
It Takes Time—and Patience
There is no immediate adjustment after a child’s diagnosis. It takes time to get an entire family back on its feet. Getting to know each other in new ways, readjusting to family roles, even learning how to interact and communicate post-cancer can throw any family for a loop. Just remember—it takes time!
No two families are the same. Some children may benefit from counseling with psychosocial therapists trained to work with kids whose siblings have cancer. Others may enjoy support groups or activities that distract them from the stress at home or the hospital. And if a sibling dies of cancer, a family’s recovery simply can’t be rushed.
No matter the outcome, a family’s world is never the same after a diagnosis of childhood cancer. But with a few tips and the support of Nationwide Children’s and your community, health and healing are possible. We will keep working to help make sure that, if your family is faced with the crisis of childhood cancer, we’re here for all of you.
Psychosocial Services and Program Development, Director
Tammi Young-Saleme, PhD, is the Director of Psychosocial Services and Program Development in the Division of Hematology/Oncology/BMT at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
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