Hope for Families of Children with Cancer
by Lynda Young
“I’m Sorry to Tell You….”
Childhood cancer isn’t a journey anyone chooses—not children, not parents, not family, not friends—not anyone. The last words parents think they’ll ever hear are, “I’m sorry to tell you—your child has cancer.” Families hurled into this dark tunnel reel, bombarded with new cancer jargon, difficult decisions, and overwhelmed schedules—all new normal challenges.
“Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God’s plans, but God is not helpless among the ruins.” Eric Liddell
After hearing the devastating words in the pediatric oncologist’s office, Sarah buried her head against her husband’s shoulder. “I thought only adults got cancer—not children.” Adults are the main ones who get cancer, but every year 12.000 new cases of cancer hit children birth through adolescences—and over 350,000 survivors continue their journeys.
Parents enter stages of grief (loss) because they’ve lost their healthy child—another new normal. The first step for most parents is denial, “There has to be another explanation for this—,” followed by anger and fear. All extreme feelings continue to ebb and flow as more information soaks in, decisions made, and at some point that initial fog begins to lift.
“What Do I Do Now?”
You take one step at a time. None of us are certain of the future, but need to do what lies clearly at hand. Each day brings choices and draining decisions—families need continual filling of empty emotional tanks.
Taking care of the caregiver
“I feel guilty taking care of myself,” a mom said. But remember, if the caregiver goes down the tube, so goes the whole family. As challenging as this will be, put into practice stress relievers for the endorphins (happy messengers in the brain) to kick in: deep breaths, sunshine, laughter, sleep, healthy meals, exercise, prayer! Ask for help. Dad, that advice is for you too.
“My husband pulls away and immerses himself on the internet Googling everything he can find about our son’s diagnosis. I guess I don’t really want to know all that—and mainly I’d like him to sit and hug me—and let me cry. How can we react so differently to this horrendous journey—he’s our child?” We react differently to a crisis, and childhood cancer is an extreme crisis. Families can pull apart—sometimes totally apart. Stop and observe how each family member copes. How did the adults deal with crises as they grew up? Did they talk about challenges or simple stuff feelings?
Chapters and Appendices in Hope for Families of Children with Cancer give insights through the You-niquely Made Personality Study and Dr. Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages information—what empties and fills our emotional tanks. Remember, this includes family, friends, professionals—all the people in your life.
If your child ends up with more toys than the hospital’s gift shop, and she’s now the decision-maker in your family, you may need to regroup. As a social worker said, “No one likes a spoiled kid; cancer kid or not.” To give your child a sense of security, your child needs to feel things are as normal as possible. I still have to behave, so I guess things are pretty much okay.
This journey isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Let the come-along-siders know you need them—because you do—and they will be blessed in helping you. Keep a list of specifics: help with siblings, food, errands. Pride can hinder asking for help, however, the result is an exhausted parent.
If you are the come-along-sider, you may be thinking, “What do I say and not say. What do I do and not do?” Mainly, don’t back off and do nothing. Pray for the family and provide necessities. Give of yourself. Sit with a mom at the hospital in the evening. It’s the loneliest time of the day as many staff are gone and the busyness of the day is done. Bring food (in disposable dishes) to the family at home, offer to help with siblings—pick up from school, take to practices, bring to your home to play with your children. If you’re a man, take the dad out to lunch or coffee. Let him talk (if he wants to). Don’t push, but be there for him. Moms have emotional outlets—dads usually say, “We’re fine.”
HOPE for Families of Children with Cancer
Our children are precious gifts, not possessions. They are given by the One our hope is in. No matter where you are on your journey, remember the words from Corrie ten Boom, “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.”
- “Hospital Hospital-ity”:
Make your hospital room home, decorate in child’s favorite colors, theme, bring favorite items from home (especially blankets, toys, and pillows).
“You can sleep anywhere, and anything that reclines more than 15 degrees is comfy,” a weary mom said. Remember to pack a care bag for you too with your necessities—you may need to grab and go at unexpected times—be prepared.
Understand and appreciate different personalities in hospital staff: they are humans first—staff second. Give the gift of a smile—they may not have seen one recently.
- Forewarned is Forearmed. Ask professionals (and parents on your journey) about steroid and chemo treatments and side effects.
- Siblings. Many times they call themselves the invisible ones. “People always ask about my sister who has cancer—I’m still here, aren’t I?”
Parents, plan special time for each sibling (not easy, but so necessary). Again, in the Resource Section of the book, read about personalities and Love Languages. Give him what he needs, not what you think he needs. Stop, (sit with him—turn off all the techy devices). Look, at him straight in his eyes. And Listen, don’t try to fix the problems—this is especially important if the sibling is shy and doesn’t say much. You will find out where his heart is hurting the most, and what you can pray for and do.
- Ask God to join you in the calm and the chaos. He’s been in both.
Lynda T. Young is an award winning author of the You Are Not Alone book series for families of children with chronic conditions (cancer, heart defects, and autism).
Hope for Families of Children with Cancer can be found at a Christian bookstore near you (Leafwood Publishing). Her husband, Dr. John L. Young, has been in cancer research for over forty years. They have four children, thirteen grandchildren, four great grandchildren.
Chaplain Jonnathan Ward, MDIV is a senior staff chaplain with the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Aflac Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Service in Atlanta, GA. He has walked daily in the trenches with children and families as they journey the difficult stages of a cancer diagnosis. He leads wellness activities for staff to lessen the impact of “compassion fatigue.”