How might a cancer diagnosis in the family affect children?
Navigating bumps in the road is all part of normal family life, but can anything be harder than telling your children that you or someone close to them has cancer? How much do you tell them and how might it affect them?

 

Clare Sherratt, a counsellor at our Chandler’s Ford Support Centre, says it’s important to make the decision that feels right for you as a family.

“There’s no right or wrong and every child is different. You know them best and it can be helpful to try and see things through their eyes,” she says. “Maybe their Dad has been told he has a terminal diagnosis, or their Grandma died of cancer three years ago and they are only just coming to terms with the grief.  There can be a huge range of factors and emotions to consider.”  

“It’s normal for a parent to want to protect their child, but not opening up at all or not giving them the space to articulate their feelings could be damaging,” she says. “Likewise, if you do talk to your child about cancer, you may need to be prepared for the fact that they start to hide their feelings because they want to protect you and don’t want to show you how they’re really feeling.”

Clare feels that it’s good for parents to show their children that sharing emotions is healthy.

“Although mental health isn’t such a taboo subject these days, we’re often made to feel that we should be able to cope, and that can ripple down to children,” she says.  “We may have been told, ‘don’t cry, everything is ok’, but crying is a normal and healthy way of reducing stress and it’s good for us! Keeping emotions inside means a child could bottle them up and then express them in different ways, such as self-harming or getting in trouble at school.”

But wouldn’t it be hard for a young child to articulate how they’re feeling? Wessex Cancer Trust provides counselling sessions for young adults and children and approaches them differently to an adult session.

“Imagine you’re 15 and you’re told your Mum has cancer,” Clare says. “Suddenly she is having to go for treatment. She might be acting and looking different and she’s not ‘just there’ as she usually is. Your normal family life has changed. That’s going to feel really strange and unsettling; but added to that you still have to go to school as normal and prepare for exams. Being a teenager can be stressful enough in itself, and now perhaps there are feelings of confusion and anger thrown in. You might also start feeling isolated because your friends don’t understand.”

In that situation, Clare might work in a creative way, helping a child to express their feelings through music they like or painting. Expressing anger in a safe way can be incredibly helpful, like writing things down on a piece of paper and then ripping it up or stamping on it. “We all deal with things differently and I take an individual approach to see what works best for that particular child,” Clare explains.                             

 

Tania Pegg, whose two daughters had counselling at our Chandler’s Ford Support Centre, said her cancer treatment had an immense effect on them.

“When we accessed the counselling services at Wessex Cancer Trust’s Chandler’s Ford Support Centre, I was at my worst physically because of the various treatments I’d been on and struggling to cope emotionally. This was putting immense pressure on the whole family, my husband and four children. I felt like my whole family was falling apart and was powerless to stop it because I was so ill. Two of my girls started counselling and the benefits were immediately noticeable. Before then, there had been constant tension, negative behaviours and attitudes. The counselling really helped to relieve a lot of this tension by providing an outlet for the girls to offload any of the feelings they were experiencing. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s so important that children have an outlet for all the difficult and confusing emotions and thoughts they’re having.”            

Clare agrees. “Sometimes it can be easier for children to talk to someone outside of the family and we’re here to facilitate that. Talking to a counsellor might seem a bit scary but we approach it very gently and help the family decide whether the time is right and what sort of support might be best for them. Children aren’t there to be ‘fixed’ or project managed but supported in a way that helps them make sense of their emotions, and we’re very proud to be able to do that here.”