Cancer can affect the mental health and emotional wellbeing of your whole family. Many families find it a huge challenge dealing with their emotions when a child is diagnosed with cancer.
There are many support groups that can help you and your family throughout the cancer journey. If you need help, advice or support at any time, don’t hesitate to contact a support group, the cancer clinic or a health professional. You are not alone, and help is always available when you need it.
Each child and family is different and will respond to the situation differently. This also means that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to deal with your emotions. You should do whatever works for you and your family.
As a parent or carer, you will, of course, feel happy and relieved once the treatment ends. But you may also feel afraid, anxious and stressed. These are all completely normal and understandable. Many parents feel this way when their child completes treatment.
You and your child may have formed special bonds with some of the doctors and other staff you have met during your cancer journey. You and your child may miss these relationships. However, many support groups offer new relationships that will help you deal with these different emotions.
For your child who had cancer
Many cancer survivors are changed by their experience. Children are no different. They may view life differently, and perhaps value it more than other children.
Your child might have some developmental delays due to the cancer diagnosis and treatment. These delays may be physical, social or emotional. As a result, your child may need some extra support to help them catch up to other children.
Your child will probably be relieved that the treatments are over. However, they might miss the special attention they received during their care, and it may take some getting used to, going back to a more ‘normal’ life.
Babies and toddlers will probably not remember their experience. Preschool children may be confused and react by acting younger than they are. Be patient and set reasonable and sensitive limits during this transition period.
Older children may be worried about going back to school and facing teachers, friends and other children. There may be some physical reminders of their ordeal, such as hair loss or weight changes. Other children at school may not understand cancer and may be afraid of ‘catching’ cancer or may make comments that are inappropriate or hurtful. It’s also a possibility that your child may have fallen behind in their education. In order to ensure a smooth transition back to school, it’s important to talk about support options with both your child’s doctor and the school.
By talking to teachers at the school, you can help them understand what your child has gone through. This is important so that the teachers can help your child settle back in and adjust, and help other children understand what has happened.
With time, you will adjust to a new ‘normal’.
For your other children
If you have other children, they might have mixed emotions as well. They will probably be excited about their life going back to normal. However, the family balance might be disrupted as well.
Cancer treatments can take many months or years. This is long enough for the family to have adjusted to this enforced way of life and to settle into new routines. This may be the case for your other children. Once your child’s treatment is over, the child will be around more often than they were during active treatment. This may upset the new routines that your other children have developed during this period. In addition, brothers and sisters might not understand that their sibling has also changed because of the experience, and they will require support and understanding. Counselling may also play a role in helping them to adjust.
For the whole family
As discussed in Living with children’s cancer, going through cancer treatment can affect the mental health of your whole family and friends. Some feelings may stay after the treatment ends, and include:
- survivor's guilt and PTSD.
It’s important that you and other members your family seek assistance and advice if you experience any of these feelings.
Part of life post-treatment will involve your child having ongoing regular check-ups. These visits may raise many of these feelings again, for you and your child, even after you thought you had dealt with them. This is normal. If you or your family do experience this, make sure that you ask for help.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after serious physical injury, or mental or emotional distress. The trauma of a life-threatening disease diagnosis for yourself or your loved ones can result in PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD include:
- reliving the time of diagnosis and treatment in nightmares or flashbacks, and thinking about it all the time
- avoiding places, events and people that remind you of the cancer experience
- being constantly overexcited, fearful, irritable or unable to sleep, or having trouble concentrating.
If anyone in your family has symptoms of PTSD, make sure you talk about them and get help from your doctor.
You can also find links to further support and advice at our Find support and more information page