pediatric cancer bw

Childhood Cancer: Treating the Whole Family

When a child falls ill with cancer, it takes a toll on the whole family. All too often, parents and healthy siblings have needs that get ignored—their focus is elsewhere. That’s why, when radiology and oncology experts are taking care of the patient, we turn our attention to siblings and parents.

What is a kid to do when Mom and Dad are overwhelmed and often unavailable? How can a family cope with one child’s cancer while the world keeps spinning for the rest?

After years of working with patient families, a few themes that can contribute to whole-family wellbeing have emerged: communication, outreach and patience.

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open

Just remembering to check in with siblings can make a big difference. Ask how they are, how they are feeling and what is going on in their lives. Furthermore, ask about their fears and concerns. As parents, we may want to shield our other children from thinking about illness, cancer or death. But when a sibling has cancer, other kids in the family will try to make sense of it no matter how much they understand.

In some cases, siblings may feel guilty, scared or confused. If parents don’t ask, though, their kids may not say what’s on their minds—no matter how easily a parent could resolve the issue or take care of the concern. On the whole, it’s best to just keep encouraging an open discussion.

Outreach and Inclusion Matter

Research on children whose siblings suffered from cancer has revealed that kids want to be included. In age-appropriate ways, siblings should be able to take part in discussions with or about the sibling with cancer. When possible, they should be incorporated into family meetings, visits to the ill sibling, support group sessions and appointments with caregivers.

Siblings want to feel aware of what is going on with their sick brothers or sisters so that they know what

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to expect. They also want to take an active role in the sibling’s life—helping him or her feel like a kid instead of a patient. Remember, they’re all part of the family unit, and they want to feel like it!

It Takes Time—and Patience

There is no immediate adjustment after a child’s diagnosis. It takes time to get an entire family back on its feet. Getting to know each other in new ways, readjusting to family roles, even learning how to interact and communicate post-cancer can throw any family for a loop. Just remember—it takes time!

No two families are the same. Some children may benefit from counseling with psychosocial therapists trained to work with kids whose siblings have cancer. Others may enjoy support groups or activities that distract them from the stress at home or the hospital. And if a sibling dies of cancer, a family’s recovery simply can’t be rushed.

No matter the outcome, a family’s world is never the same after a diagnosis of childhood cancer. But with a few tips and the support of Nationwide Children’s and your community, health and healing are possible. We will keep working to help make sure that, if your family is faced with the crisis of childhood cancer, we’re here for all of you.

Tammi Young-Saleme, PhD
Tammi Young-Saleme, PhD, is the Director of Psychosocial Services and Program Development in the Division of Hematology/Oncology/BMT at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Dr. Young-Saleme is a pediatric psychologist by training. She has been an integral part of the care of cancer patients and their families for over 15 years at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Her role as Director provides the Hematology/Oncology/BMT Division the vision to carry out an integrated approach to psychosocial services and programs for patients with blood disorders and cancer and their families. She is also a wife and a mother of two children and enjoys playing golf, relaxing on the beach and cheering on her alma matter Texas A&M University, GIG ‘EM AGGIES!

One thought on “Childhood Cancer: Treating the Whole Family

  1. Michelle on said:

    This hospital does a wonderful job of taking care of the whole family. The social workers, hospital liaisons, psychologists, and of course the doctors and nurses make it the reason we travel over three hours here for my son to get treatment for his leukemia. I also commend the sibling clubhouse because they make my five year old daughter feel very special when we are there and focused on my son’s care.

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