For young adults - cancer and your family

If you’re a young person diagnosed with cancer you probably have lots of questions about how it will affect your family.

While every family is different and has its own strengths and quirks, it may be helpful to consider some common questions. Click on a section below to see some tips and hints, as well as recommendations for further reading.

No matter how old you are, your parents are likely to be extremely worried or downright terrified. They may try to hide this from you or cope by smothering you with care and attention. They’re likely to feel helpless at times, so it’s important to remember that any smothering behaviour comes from a good place, no matter how frustrating it might be.

People cope with cancer differently, and you may even find that you cope better than your parents do. This resource from Redkite may help with some suggestions around how to set boundaries and ensure everyone in your family feels supported. You might also find some tips on how to help your parents cope from the Canadian Cancer Society.

No matter how good or bad your relationship was with your siblings before, chances are cancer is going to cause some tension. It’s likely that their life is also going to change as a result of cancer. It may be something like missing their regular activities, or even not seeing one parent for a long time while they stay with you during your treatment.

Cancer affects the whole family, and siblings are significantly impacted. They will experience disruption to their every day life, including school and the relationship with their parents. Siblings often report feeling ‘left out’ or ‘forgotten’, especially when their sibling is on treatment. Feelings of anger, fear, guilt, and jealousy are normal and common. Depending on the age of your siblings, these feelings may be expressed in different ways.

This article from US website Cancer.net has provided an overview of some common behaviours:

  • Misbehaving or acting out in negative, attention-seeking ways at home or school
  • Increased anxiety, such as not wanting to leave their parents or to go to school
  • Withdrawing from the family or wanting to be alone
  • Acting younger, such as a preschooler wanting to go back to diapers or an older child using baby language
  • Demanding or entitled behaviors, such as wanting a new toy during every trip to the store
  • Having physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, or bedwetting
  • Having trouble sleeping and/or bad dreams
  • Being moody and irritable, including temper tantrums, fighting with parents or siblings, or crying a lot
  • Performing worse in school or having a hard time focusing on homework
  • Doing “extra good” deeds to try to take care of the rest of the family

Sometimes talking openly about the feelings you and your siblings are experiencing can really help, so you may want to consider resources such as Livewire or You Can. These online communities are for young people facing cancer and those who support them. You can speak to thousands of others who have been there before and really get what you’re going through. You can also check out Cancer Advisor’s collection of personal stories from young people with cancer, or our resources for siblings. You or your siblings can contribute your own here. 

You might be dealing with cancer while trying to be a mum or dad to a little person. This adds a whole new layer of complexity and different challenges. You’ll be managing who looks after your children while you’re in hospital, explaining to them what’s happening and avoiding infection when your immune system is compromised. There are organisations that offer specific support for this situation, like Mummy’s WishThe Cancer Council has some terrific resources for helping children understand, and Redkite’s Book Club also has some great titles you can borrow. Redkite’s support team is also here to help with information, counselling, financial assistance to help you find ways to communicate with and support your child.

Rhianna Truman, teen mum with cancer 
Cancer Advisor has a range of resources for young people facing cancer, but we’re always looking for more content. Leave a comment below, share your own story or recommend a resource.

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