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Helping Your Family Cope When the Diagnosis Is Cancer

by Tamara Shulman, PhD

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Cancer changes your world forever. Shock, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are common reactions. You need someone to listen and offer emotional support as you consult with professionals to learn about your particular cancer and treatment choices. Family and loved ones are dramatically affected. While you experience acute physical and emotional stress, your spouse or partner rides the emotional roller coaster alongside you.

Managing appointments, sorting out treatment decisions, and managing transportation can be overwhelming if you try to do everything yourself. Family and friends are often good sources of support and day-to-day help. This support network may experience additional stress from trying to hide their fears from you and your kids. Partners and children, siblings and friends need help to cope.

There are many good sources of information and support. Treatment centers may offer support groups for people with cancer and their families. Organizations and Web sites may be available with information and online support for specific types of cancer. An example of this is, a Web based resource for breast cancer survivors and their families. Be sure to get recommendations from your physician or your local American Cancer Society for Web sites that are professional and responsible. The amount of information available online can be overwhelming. Not all of it is reliable.

Discuss your feelings, as well as the medical issues, with your spouse or partner. It is important to enjoy some fun time together. As your health allows, continue to enjoy activities you shared before the diagnosis. Find new ways to connect and share your time together.

Children have emotional radar. They sense when something is wrong. Age and maturity will affect how much detail you share. It may be best to wait until you have a complete diagnosis and have chosen a treatment plan before discussing the situation with your children. That way, a clearer picture of what to expect can be provided. This also allows you some time to adjust to your own emotions, and those of your partner.

It is important to enjoy some fun time together. As your health allows, continue to enjoy activities you shared before the diagnosis.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Tamara Shulman

Children should be told in simple, honest terms that mom or dad is ill. Tell them you have expert doctors, a good treatment plan, and will be taking special medicines to help you get well. Be honest and direct about side effects such as hair loss, nausea, and fatigue. Explain that medicines strong enough to kill the cancer cells have side effects. There is often no need to go into too much detail about the side effects, but you should reassure children that hair grows back and nausea and fatigue are temporary. If surgery is needed, this can be discussed, along with plans for visits and staying in close touch with children.

Children need to be reassured often that their needs will be taken care of. This is normal. Children?s concerns about themselves are not selfish. Maintain their normal routines as much as possible.

A cancer diagnosis is a challenge for any family. Seek professional help if anyone has ongoing difficulty sleeping or eating, new problems at school or work, or seems depressed. Most adults and children will show some symptoms of stress at first, but if it continues or interferes with their own lives, it is important to seek professional help.

Let friends, neighbors, and classmates' parents help when needed with school and other activities. A close friend might be able to coordinate this so you are able to focus on your family and on getting well. Updating family, friends, and co-workers via e-mail can reduce the stress and frequency of phone calls.

Children like to be helpful. Older kids can help with little ones and household needs. Young children can make pictures to brighten hospital or bedrooms. Do not overburden kids. They are going through their own difficult emotions. Praise all efforts. Go “light” on criticism.

Be creative in making time for family fun. Children enjoy reading to parents, or watching family videos together. This is great when you are too tired to read or play and provides quality family time. Meals can become bedside picnics. Many families find comfort in attending religious services together.

Adjusting to a cancer diagnosis is a process that takes time. Emotional support for you and your family, time together, awareness, and sensitivity will help you and your family cope.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Tamara Shulman is a board certified clinical psychologist (ABPP) practicing in New York City and New Jersey. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Psychology and a member of the professional advisory board of

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This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2008.