Coping with a child's cancer

Everyone copes with a child’s cancer diagnosis in different ways. If you are having difficulty coping, talk to the healthcare team.

Some tips on coping that parents have shared include:

Rely on what has helped in the past. If there are ways of coping or solving problems that have worked in the past, use these to help you feel in control.

Accept your feelings. Accept and recognize any feelings that you have. Welcome them, give them time and then let them go. There will be times when you feel very positive and times when you feel low, no matter how well you cope.

Let people help. You’re not alone if you find it really hard to ask for or accept help. Other parents who have been where you are right now know just how you feel – but they’ll tell you that you need help of all kinds – emotional, practical and financial – to get through this experience. People want to help. It makes them feel better when they can help. Make a list of things that people can do. This may include babysitting, pet sitting, car pools, groceries, cooking, housework or yardwork.

And if managing all the help gets hard, ask someone who knows you well to manage it for you.

Keep a personal journal. Making a record of what you’re thinking and feeling may help you deal with your emotions.

Relax, take breaks and take care of yourself. This can give you space to deal with emotions and reduce your anxiety. Taking care of yourself and making sure you are emotionally and physically healthy will help you to take care of your child and family. Make time for yourself and don’t feel guilty about it. Some examples of ways to relax or take a break are meditating, going for a walk or working out, listening to music, having a bubble bath, having a massage or taking a nap. Look after your health. Eat well, sleep well and exercise when possible. If possible take turns with your spouse or another support person when you are staying with your child in the hospital or going to appointments.

Bring a friend or family member with you to appointments. They can help you remember what the doctor said or they might ask questions that you wouldn’t think to ask. And it’s just nice to have someone with you.

Do things together as a family. Try to fit in recreational activities, such as physical activities, watching a movie, playing a game or anything else that you can do together as a family. This can help to take your minds off what you are going through for a while. Put a little bit of fun into each day or week. Try to plan special activities for the days when your child feels well.

Find support that’s right for you. Talk to someone you know and trust about your feelings, fears, concerns and hopes for your child. You may prefer to talk to someone who isn’t so close to you. Ask the social workers or healthcare team about support groups and counselling services that are available. Get professional help if you need it. Support groups may not be for everybody and there are many other types of support that may better meet your personal needs, including individual counselling, online support groups and blogs. Consider joining an online community. Whether you meet face to face or online, these groups are a place for families to share their experiences. Many parents say they give them a safe place to vent, learn, laugh and cry. You may also find it helpful to talk to other parents who have a child with cancer and have a discussion one-to-one rather than in a group setting. This may feel less intimidating and may also better meet your need to connect with someone who understands what you’re going through.

Focus your time and energy. Try to prioritize what things are important for you in each day or week. Include something that makes you feel good and avoid situations that will only make you feel worse. Sometimes well-meaning friends and family members will say the worst possible things or may want to talk to you about their experiences with cancer. They truly want to be helpful but may end up making you feel more overwhelmed. Remember that it’s OK to ask for what you need as well as state what you don’t need during this time.

Let your spiritual or religious beliefs comfort you. A minister, priest, rabbi, elder or specially trained pastoral visitor or counsellor may be able to help you and support you. You can experience spirituality in non-religious ways. Many people feel that some aspects of nature are highly spiritual and get a great deal of comfort, strength and renewal from being outdoors.

Taking care of your relationship with your spouse

You may be so busy looking after your sick child and other children that you may forget what you and your spouse need from each other. Your relationship with your spouse deserves time and care, even now.

Talk to each other. Try to set up time to talk about the most important things that you need to discuss. Talk about how to have time with each other and also share your time between your sick child and your other children. Talk about the big stuff – financial concerns, feelings, wishes and hopes as a parent. Talk about the little stuff – something funny a child said or your favourite TV show.

Make time for each other. The stress of caring for a sick child can cause friction in a relationship. It’s very important to make time to be together and reconnect. Try to share your feelings honestly and openly. Sharing feelings and information helps you stay connected and you’ll be better able to make decisions about your child’s care together. Find private times to be together. Try to talk about other things in your life as well as your child with cancer. If you need help, a member of the healthcare team may be able to help or to refer you to a counsellor.

Do something special for your spouse. This may be something as simple as a compliment or giving them some extra time to sleep or rest. You might plan a special night out together or a night away from the hospital.

Learn to respect the different ways each partner copes. Parents often deal with stress in different ways. Some find talking helpful, some want lots of information and some want to withdraw. There is no right or wrong way to cope – just different ways. Try to understand and be sympathetic to your partner.

Make changes if needed. You may have to find new ways to share responsibilities in order to care for your sick child and keep things going at home. Any kind of change can cause stress. Talking about these changes with your partner should help you learn to accept them. In some families, one parent may give up a job or work less often than the other. These role changes may be for a short time or they may become permanent.

Single parents and blended families

There are many kinds of families today. Some tips to help single-parent families and blended families cope include:

  • Tell the healthcare team about custody and access arrangements. They need to know who is allowed to make decisions about your child’s care.
  • Set up a plan to make sure both parents (if applicable) receive the same information even if you cannot attend meetings together. Ask for 2 copies of materials and treatment protocols. Talk about how you will share important health information if your child goes back and forth between different homes.
  • Come up with a plan to make sure that medicines are given at the right times. You don’t want them given twice or not at all. Having one medicine calendar that stays with the child can help.
  • Ask about volunteer programs at the hospital – and then use them.
  • If your child has step-parents, include them in any teaching if they are going to be involved in caring for your child at home.
  • If your relationship with your ex is difficult, ask your social worker or psychologist for help. They may be able to help you cope with strong feelings. They may also be able to help you and your ex work together to help your child.

Expert review and references

  • Bragadottir, H . Computer-mediated support group intervention for parents. Journal of Nursing Scholarship. Indianapolis, Indiana: Sigma Theta Tau International; 2008.
  • Living with cancer. Buckman, R. What You Really Need to Know about Cancer: A Comprehensive Guide for Patients and Their Families. 2nd ed. Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books; 2006: 10: pp. 347-406.
  • Effects on family when your child has cancer. Cancerbackup. Cancerbackup: Children's Cancers. London, UK: Cancerbackup; 2005.
  • Dolgin, M.J., Phipps, S., Fairclough, D.L., et al . Trajectories of adjustment in mothers of children with newly diagnosed cancer: a natural history investigation. Society of Pediatric Psychology. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. Cary, North Carolina: Oxford University Press; 2007.
  • Living with cancer. Dollinger, M., Rosenbaum, E., Tempero, M., & Mulvihill, S. Everyone's Guide to Cancer Therapy: How Cancer is Diagnosed, Treated and Managed Day to Day. 4th ed. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing; 2002: 20: pp. 151-160.
  • National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group. CureSearch: Newly Diagnosed - Impact on the Family. Bethesda, MD: 2004.
  • Norberg, A.L., Lindblad, F., and Boman, K.K . Coping strategies in parents of children with cancer. Social Science & Medicine. England: Pergamon Press; 2005.
  • Pai, A.L.H., Lewandowski, A., Youngstrom, E., et al . A meta-analytic review of the influence of pediatric cancer on parent and family functioning. Journal of Family Psychology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association; 2007.

Helping your child cope

The child and their family enter a whole new world when the child is diagnosed with cancer and admitted to the hospital for treatment. Learn how you can prepare your child for what to expect.

Helping siblings cope

Even though the siblings of a child with cancer don't have to go through tests, procedures and hospitalization, they still struggle with their brother's or sister's diagnosis. Learn helpful hints on how to help siblings of different ages deal with a cancer diagnosis.

Coping with hospital stays

Children often need to be in the hospital for treatment soon after they are diagnosed with cancer. Kids also spend time at the hospital for tests and surgeries or to manage side effects. Coping with hospital stays can be hard for all members of the family.

Nutrition for children with cancer

Children with cancer need nutrition for healing and managing problems caused by cancer and treatments. Learn more about nutrition for children with cancer.

Cancer and school

School plays a critical role in a child's life. It provides structure and allows a child to start thinking about the future. School is where children learn and develop communication and social skills.


Cancer can affect a family's finances. Parents may need to take unpaid time away from work, which can affect their income. They may also have to spend more money on things like medicines and travel.

Finding support

Some people need help to cope with the diagnosis of cancer. This may include the child with cancer, the family or friends who are also affected by a cancer diagnosis. Support groups and systems are available to all people coping with cancer.

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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