A child with cancer has unique needs that can demand a lot from families.
Healthy siblings may feel sidelined as energy and attention focus on the one who has the disease. Genevieve Stonebridge, a clinical counselor at InspireHealth, a nonprofit supportive cancer care center in Victoria, British Columbia, says siblings of children with cancer have seven needs:
- Acknowledgment and attention.
Siblings need to know they matter, even when a brother or a sister is battling cancer. Stonebridge says, “Ask a sibling how they are doing, not just, ‘how’s your sister?’”
- Family communication. It’s important to talk to siblings—in an age-appropriate way—about the cancer diagnosis, treatment and side effects. Parents may think they are protecting children by staying silent, but without information children often imagine the worst.
- Inclusion in the family. It’s hard for siblings to watch someone they love suffer, and they want to help. They can play games or watch videos with their sibling. Skype chats, text messages and letters can keep them connected if treatment requires travel.
- To know that it’s normal to have difficult emotions and uncomfortable thoughts. Siblings may feel anger, confusion, frustration, jealousy, hatred or guilt. Parents can help by giving the sibling a safe space to work through emotions.
- Their own support. Siblings need help from family members, teachers and coaches, and professionals like social workers and counselors. It can also be good for siblings to talk to siblings of other children with cancer.
- To be a kid. Children need to play and keep up their extracurricular activities. They can be responsible for their chores and homework, but they shouldn’t feel the burden of caring for their parents emotionally.
- Humor, laughter and lightheartedness. “It’s a hard time, but we can laugh, play and have a good time,” Stonebridge says. “It’s important to have balance. Just because you’re dealing with a crisis doesn’t mean there can’t be wholehearted living.”
Call If You Need Me
When a cancer diagnosis strikes, well-meaning friends and family will want to help. But they may not know what you need. “Here in the South, everyone wants to bring over pound cake,” says Katy Jones, an advanced oncology certified nurse practitioner at Beaufort Memorial Keyserling Cancer Center. “Assess what you need and be honest about it. If you don’t want a truckload of food, tell them.”
Be willing to give up control and ask for help with daily chores on the days you feel sick or drained from treatment or caretaking. “Your friends want to help, so let them pick up the kids from school or do the dishes,” Jones says. “It makes them feel good.” Jones also suggests setting up an account at a local restaurant where friends can contribute. “That way, you can order the amount of food you need when you need it,” she says.