Cancer

Impact on family

"This is my personal opinion, but I think it’s actually harder on the families than it is on the person suffering the illness" (Interview 18).
 
Having a person with cancer in the family changes the way that members of the family connect and communicate with each another. It can have a big effect on the lives of everyone concerned including grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters. Here young people talk about the impact that their illness and treatment had on family members and how their cancer changed family relationships. 
 
Parents are naturally shocked and upset when their son or daughter is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness such as a cancer. As a result they can feel angry and powerless and say that they would much rather have the cancer themselves than see their child with the disease. Parents may to do everything they possibly can for their son or daughter as a way of making up for what has happened. The mother of one young woman we spoke to was also diagnosed with cancer. This helped her to understand how helpless it can feel when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. They became even closer as a result of both having had the same experience.

Some parents tended to 'bottle up' their emotions as their own particular way of coping. Those who were badly affected were prescribed anti-depressants to help them through. One 21-year-old man had a mother who was already depressed even before he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

Many busy families have to decide which parent will stay in hospital with the young person, and which will carry on working or looking after the rest of the family. Usually it was the mother who stayed within the hospital, and many also gave up work to do so. Brothers and sisters may sometimes have to be looked after by friends or relatives. Fathers often had to continue working and make do with less frequent visits or phone calls. Those who were being treated for cancer who had separated or divorced parents sometimes didn't see their fathers at all while they were ill.

Parents tend to cope with difficult situations by taking on different roles and responsibilities. Mothers were often the 'nurturers’, making sure that they could be around during treatment and follow up appointments. Fathers tended to be more practical and find out as much information about the cancer as they possible could. One young woman said that her father learned to clean her intravenous Hickman line and gave her some of the injections that she needed. A young man said that his dad had given up smoking following the cancer diagnosis but he didn't think his father really understood what he was going through with his cancer treatment.

Many young people said that they tried to reassure their family by trying to stay positive throughout their treatment. They didn't want their families to be upset or suffer so they put on a 'brave face' (see ’Coping with cancer’). At the same time, they also realised that members of their family were trying hard to be positive for their sakes during the treatment. Quite naturally and very thoughtfully, everyone was trying to protect everyone else. However, in these situations, it helps to talk about feelings. If members of the family can't talk to each another, it may be worth talking to a trusted friend or relative outside of the immediate family.

Young people found that the support, love and attention they got from their families was priceless. They felt very reassured to have this stable force there supporting them. Young people from one parent family backgrounds particularly stressed the support and strong bond they have with their mothers.

Brothers and sisters can find it especially difficult having a sibling with cancer, and this can be worse the younger they are. Even very young children are often aware that cancer is a life threatening illness so it's probably best for parents to talk to them honestly about what is happening and answer their questions as best they can. Some brothers and sisters were very upset by the changes made to family routine during the treatment period, especially if it was all happening far away from home and their mother had to be away, looking after the sibling with cancer. Brothers and sisters who had to stay with friends, a child minder or relatives could sometimes feel very left out. The young person with the cancer could often be very aware of this and felt guilty because they were taking their parents’ attention away from the rest of their family. A young man who was only 14 when his brother was diagnosed with Leukaemia started to look after his other younger brother and his sister when his parents were at the hospital.

One fourteen-year-old boy, who was the brother of a young cancer patient, talked to his headteacher when his brother was in hospital. He said he would have liked to have talked more to someone who understood how he was feeling at the time. 

Sometimes brothers and sisters suddenly became much kinder, nicer and more caring than usual - though this didn’t always last long after their sibling’s cancer treatment had stopped! Siblings also sometimes admitted that they had found it difficult visiting their brother or sister in hospital because they looked so ill and so different.

Last reviewed November 2014.

Last updated November 2014.

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