Dialog Box

Rare Cancers Australia

Talking with family


Your parents will initially feel helpless and overwhelmed upon hearing about your diagnosis. No matter what their child’s age is, they will want to help and protect their child. While also dealing with other family members or siblings processing the diagnosis, it will take some time for your parents to adjust.  

Parents of children or adolescents may need to take on the role of advocate while they care for their child. Parents of an adult child may not have a clear role to play, and that can make them feel more helpless.  

How to talk to parents: 
  • Explain treatment options and clear up any misconceptions they may have. 
  • It may seem like you’re helping them by not talking about how you feel. Expressing your thoughts and emotions can also help them process their feelings and get a better understanding of how you are coping. 
  • Be clear about how you want them to help. 

Young children 

No matter how young they may be, your children will suspect something is wrong. They may notice changes in the routine, more people coming over or switches in things like your energy levels. Reassure them that cancer is no one's fault. Children might think something they did cause cancer or that they are going to get it as well. It's important to let them know well in advance when you are going to the hospital or something changes that cause a shift in their regular routine.  

How to talk to children 
  • Listen and be alert to their feelings, this gives you an idea on what they can handle.  
  • Communicate feelings as well as facts.
  • Give simple, honest answers and clarify any confusion.
  • Explain what will happen and give them real hope, e.g. that the family can still spend time together 
  • Don't make promises you can't keep.
  • Reassure them that they didn't cause cancer. 
  • Try to maintain a regular schedule and routine as much as possible 
  • Provide extra physical and verbal expressions of love. 

Teenage Children

Teenagers react in different ways, ranging from withdrawal to offers of help and assurances of love. Like younger children, teenagers can feel abandoned as the family concentrates on the sick person. Instead of focusing on themselves, teenagers may be required to deal with the needs of the family. Because of these pressures, there may be outbursts over trivial things. Teenage children may feel upset by how unfair the situation seems and also react to feelings that they are not really aware of, or cannot acknowledge, like anger, guilt or grief. 

How to talk to teenage children 
  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings, but understand they may find it easier to confide in friends, teachers or other trusted people.
  • Help them find ways to express their feelings in different ways, e.g. listening to music, playing sports, writing in a journal.
  • Negotiate role changes in the family.
  • Keep their routine as normal as possible – school, homework, activities and social outings.
  • Provide resources for learning more about cancer and getting support and counselling, such as  Canteen's website.

Adult children 

Adult children may feel overwhelmed when they find out you have advanced cancer. They can become aware of their own desire to have a parent around forever. They may feel guilty because they have to juggle other responsibilities (e.g. a job or caring for children of their own) or they live far away. 

You might feel you have to, or want to, carry on as the head of the family, reassuring everyone that things are the same as always. Having to rely on your adult children may make you feel uncomfortable, particularly if you need help with feeding or bathing. However, your adult children may see it as their opportunity to look after you and show their love. 

How to talk to adult children 
  • Provide information about your condition to your grown-up children to help them cope with their feelings.
  • Involve them in decision-making about treatment or activities you want to continue. They may have valuable input.
  • Discuss ways your children might be able to help you while still managing their other responsibilities.
  • Organise or make time to spend with your children so you can create meaningful memories together.

Source: Cancer Vic - Talking with Family and Friends