Caring for children when you have cancer

As a parent, you’re used to caring for your children and putting their needs first. As a parent with cancer, though, you may wonder how you’ll go through treatment and still be able to look after your children. It won’t be easy, and there will be times when you’ll feel guilty by making your treatment a priority. But it’s important to be treated and to go through recovery, so that you can be there for your children later on.

How will you find a good balance between your own needs right now, and the needs of your children?

Share family responsibilities

Now, more than ever, is the time to be a little flexible with your parenting style. That doesn’t mean your children will be left to fend for themselves. It does mean, though, that you’ll need to let other people help with your everyday tasks. If you’re married or in a domestic partnership, for example, your partner may have to take on some of the chores that you usually handle: cooking, driving, or dealing with the family finances.

Both single and married parents usually ask for help from friends and relatives. Asking for help can be hard to do, though, if you’re used to handling things on your own.

Regular routines, open communication, and close contact

Children do best when they stick to a schedule. Even though your cancer treatment will bring changes to your family, try to keep some of your usual activities. Come up with some new ways to feel close to each other: For example, you may want to set up regular family meetings to share feelings and information. And you can all decide as a group how to handle daily chores.

Listen to your children’s worries and let them know that their needs will still be met. Younger children can pick up on your mood and tone of voice, so do your best to speak in a calm, quiet way. Holding your children and staying close will also help to comfort them.

Whenever possible, take some time to do stress-free activities with your children. Help them to stay focused on their schoolwork, friends, and other interests, too. If you’re not feeling well enough to go to your children’s events, stay in touch by phone and ask how things turned out. You could also ask a relative or family friend to go instead. You may want to spoil your kids or bend the rules right now, but try to make as few changes as possible: Your children will feel more secure.

If your children offer to help, give them simple tasks to do, like bringing water to you when you’re resting. They could also do extra chores around the house, but don’t give them too much responsibility: It’s not healthy for children to get too involved with a parent’s illness. Older girls, for example, shouldn’t become “substitute” mothers: Teenagers are learning to be more independent and they need to keep moving in that direction.

Ways to balance parenting and treatment

Your childcare needs will depend on the ages of your children. You may need daycare or babysitting for younger children, or rides to activities for older children. Here are some tips:

  • Make a plan: Try to come up with a plan for taking care of your home and children before starting treatment.
  • Pick a coordinator: Choose a close friend or family member to schedule help that’s offered by others.
  • Reach out to friends and relatives: When people offer to help, let them know what tasks they can do for you, like babysitting, or taking your child to school. People are often happy to help and glad to be asked. If you belong to a church, that’s also a good place to find support.
  • Tell your child’s teacher, principal or guidance counselor about your illness: Schools are usually very flexible when a parent has cancer. They can help if there are any changes in your child’s schoolwork or behavior, and they will understand if your child has to miss activities.
  • Talk to your children: Teenagers hate to be different. They may feel uncomfortable if everyone at school knows that they have a parent with cancer. Talk with them about the best way to let the school know about your condition and still keep the information private.
  • Look for other childcare options: Hospital social workers can help parents find childcare resources, such as after-school programs, or groups that offer low-cost childcare.
  • Prepare in advance: Before your treatment begins, you may want to freeze meals, write “to do” lists, and stock up on food and other basics.
  • Join a support group or online message board: No one understands how you feel right now like another person with cancer. Your hospital may have cancer support groups, or they may be able to connect you with a family in your area that has been through cancer, too. Other groups that offer support include CancerCare,, the American Cancer Society, and the Wellness Community,


American Cancer Society (2005). Helping children with a family member has

Blum, D. CancerCare Connect (2005). Helping children when a family member has cancer. Retrieved 6/30/08 from

Harpham, W. (1997). When a parent has cancer: a guide to caring for your children. New York: HarperCollins.