Parenting when you have cancer

Being a parent is challenging. It can be even more challenging when you have cancer. Not only do you have day-to-day family life to get on with, you also have to cope with appointments and treatment or you could be dealing with side effects like fatigue or nausea. It’s normal to worry a lot about your children who are still at home and how cancer affects them.

Children of all ages will have to cope with changing family roles and with their own feelings about a parent being ill. They may feel afraid, angry, sad or guilty. They may worry about how their own lives will change or feel abandoned when the family focuses on your illness. To help your children cope you can:

Stay consistent with rules. Your children need to know that you are still the parent – and in charge – even if you are unwell.

Help your child know what to expect. Explain what may happen to you physically and emotionally, such as loss of hair, nausea, tiredness, bloating or weight changes, effects of surgery, sadness or moodiness, forgetfulness and whatever other changes you think may occur. If you can, reassure children that even if there are rough times ahead, they will likely be temporary.

Maintain routines as much as possible. Encourage them to see their friends and do things they enjoy. Let them know in advance if a routine may change. If possible, let them help plan changes.

Continue to do things with them. Even if it’s just watching TV or helping with homework, it’s important. Talk to them about what’s going on in their lives.

Try to have one parent spend time with them every day. If you can't physically be with your children, phone, text or use video chat and focus solely on them – what their day was like, how a test went or how their hockey game was.

Ask a friend, relative or other trusted adult to spend extra time with them. Teenagers may find it easier to open up to someone other than their parents. Younger children may need to be looked after when you’re not feeling well. You can ask people to pick them up from school, drive them to lessons or have play dates and sleepovers.

Tell other adults in your child’s life what’s going on. Teachers, school principals, guidance counsellors and other caregivers such as daycare staff, babysitters or coaches can help your children cope and may notice changes in behaviour that you aren’t aware of.

What’s normal behaviour?

If you’re concerned about big changes in your child’s behaviour, talk to your healthcare team. But all of these behaviours are normal:

Younger children may act out to get your attention. They may misbehave or become clingy or insecure, refusing to leave your side. Some children start acting younger than their age. They can also lose interest in some of their favourite activities or have trouble sleeping or with schoolwork. Sometimes younger children worry that they caused the cancer or that they might “catch” it.

Teenagers are able to understand more about your illness but may still struggle to cope. Some teenagers can seem indifferent, showing little emotion or withdrawing from you. Others may react with anger, act out or get into trouble. Teens may resent extra responsibilities or respond with offers of help and assurances of love – sometimes both in the same day.

It’s OK to need a break

It’s really hard as a parent to put yourself first. When you have cancer, you sometimes have to. And that’s OK. Taking care of yourself when you need to allows you to enjoy the time you have with your children.

You may have days when you feel too tired or ill to be an active parent. It is not selfish to take care of yourself. Let your partner take over more responsibility for a while, or ask your family or close friends for help for a day or even a few hours. Maybe all of the housework doesn’t need to be done, or you can skip helping out with the school fundraiser this time. Just focus on yourself and taking some time for you for a while.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Helping Children When a Family Member has Cancer: Dealing with Diagnosis. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2012.
  • Cancer Council New South Wales. Talking to Kids About Cancer . 2010:
  • Your relationships after cancer treatment. Macmillan Cancer Support. Macmillan Cancer Support. London, UK: Macmillan Cancer Support; 2012.
  • Song L, Northouse L. Family and caregiver issues. Yarbro CH, Wujcki D, Holmes Gobel B (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice . 8th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2016: 73:2045–2062.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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