Skip to Content

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer CenterVanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center


When a Parent Has Cancer

Cancer researcher C.M. Parkes has observed that, much in the way that it invades the body, cancer also invades the family. The diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from cancer present unique challenges and stressors for children whose parents have the disease. Although most children, teenagers, and young adults cope effectively with the stress of parental cancer, some can struggle with their emotions.

Children whose parents have cancer are faced with several challenges. First, children may have difficulty understanding what it means to have cancer. This includes an understanding of the nature of the disease itself, their parents’ prognosis, and what will happen during treatment. Of course, these challenges can be greater for younger children who are limited in their understanding of disease in general. However, young children may be protected in some ways, as their failure to understand cancer can protect them from some of the fears that may arise for older children. Adolescents appear to have the most difficult time when their parent has cancer. They understand the seriousness of a cancer diagnosis but they can lack the ability to fully grasp their parent’s prognosis, the effects of treatment, and the uncertainty about the future.

Second, children may need help in managing their worries, fears, sadness, and feelings of frustration and anger. It is natural for patients and their loved ones to experience significant emotions at the time of a diagnosis, during treatment, and at the completion of active treatment. Children may express these emotions in a variety of ways, or struggle to keep their feelings to themselves for fear of further burdening their parents.

Third, family routines and roles are disrupted when a parent has cancer. Parents may be forced to miss work, creating financial strains for some families. Parents may be unable to fulfill their usual household duties and roles, disrupting typical family routines and placing new and challenging demands on children. For example, research has shown that teenage girls whose mothers have cancer may be faced with particularly high demands, as they may be asked to take on the role that mom typically fills at home.

What can parents do to help their children cope with parental cancer? First, reflect on how you and your children typically cope with stress and draw on those resources. For many families, this means having an honest and open discussion about the diagnosis, what treatment will entail, and what lies ahead. Second, coping by trying to avoid the problem, by keeping feelings inside, and by denying the significance of cancer rarely helps. The old adage that it is better to share feelings than to hold them inside holds true. Parents can help their children share their worries, concerns, and frustrations. Third, give your children permission to take a break from having an ill parent. It is helpful for children to know that it is okay to still spend time with friends and be involved in their usual activities. Let them help mom and dad, but be sure that they get time away as well. Fourth, seek help from our support team as much as you need it. We have experts here to help parents and their children cope with the stress of cancer. Finally, there are excellent resources on the web, including web sites and chat groups especially designed for children and teens whose parents have cancer. We can help you find and access these.