Parenting While Living with Cancer



Author: Robyn Strelitz

Those with cancer know that life throws its most unfair and unexpected surprises without your permission.  Most parents have ideas for how they want to parent.  They have hopes and dreams for the experiences and adventures they will have with their family.  But life can get tricky and you can be thrown a curveball that nobody saw coming.  Or maybe you got the curveball, but you still went for it anyway; you took on the most awesome job—you became a parent.  Here are some things to consider if you are facing cancer while raising your children:

1. You may understand cancer, but your children don’t. 

Children often think that what is going on in their home, is going on everywhere.  This is particularly true the younger they are.  As they move forward, they start learning about the outside world, but their young minds are still developing and perspective-taking is a work in progress.  You have years of life experience to fall back on and your cancer probably feels like a major curveball.  But to your children, especially younger ones with shorter memories, it may seem normal.  Keep in mind that as they grow and when they are grown, they will better understand your struggles and appreciate your tenacity.

2. Talk to your kids about cancer.  

Life is fragile, but for those facing cancer, the fear of letting your children into your medical odyssey is extremely painful.  Cancer reminds us of an ultimate truth—that there are so many things out of our control.  It is a daunting task to talk to your children about your illness and possible prognoses.  Parents have a strong biological urge to shield their children from pain.  Part of the delicate job of ushering our children in the world, is the painful awareness that at some point they will be introduced to the uncertainties of life. 

Our children are smart and they usually know, maybe not with words, that something is wrong.  This can cause them to feel anxious and rightfully so.  For most battling cancer, there is likely a lot of adult talk that happens in front of children.  Facing cancer can mean that our children hear and witness things that we would prefer they never had to face.  This can leave children trying to put the pieces together, and this can be scarier than being armed with the facts. 

3. Sometimes you need to hit refresh. 

Children grow up, but sometimes we forget to update them on an age appropriate basis.  Maybe you were diagnosed when your children were too young to talk.  The one constant in children’s lives is change.  So, what happens if you were diagnosed with cancer prior to or just after having children?  Many times, it means that unless you plan for it (in the midst of treatments, surgeries, hospital stays, side effects etc.), they miss out on learning and understanding what is going on with their primary people, their parents.  So, from time to time, it’s important for you, your partner, or a trusted loved one to sit down with your children and provide them with age appropriate information about what is going on in their family.  Give them time and space to ask questions and process their feelings.  This can be especially painful for parents; not only personally confronting your illness, but watching your children do the same.

4. Access cancer support networks.

You have options and you are not alone.  The Flatwater Foundation is an organization that covers the cost of care for therapy and counseling for you and your family. They cover the cost of providing support to you, your spouse, and your children.  You can learn more about this service by asking the social worker at your medical or social facility if they're connected to the Flatwater network.

Places like Wonders and Worries are designed to help your children process your illness on an age and timing appropriate basis. There are books that help explain illness and loss.  Take all the help you can get.

5. Enjoy the beautiful moments.

You never know when connection and joy will strike—grab them and savor them.  Take the cuddles on the couch, naps, and times when you feel well enough to play with your children.  Your children will have these no matter how your illness unfolds—they will learn the beauty of living in the here and now. 

Mostly remember that your diagnosis does not define you.  Yes, you are facing remarkable challenges and odds, but you do have some control: control to leave nothing left unsaid and control to manage how your children learn about your illness.  And whether you face remission or the unthinkable, your children will know deep in their soul that you showed up for them, were passionate about them, and that you did the very best you could for them despite the hand you were dealt.  

To make an appointment with Robyn Strelitz, call 512-434-0868.

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Robyn Strelitz, LMFT