When a sibling has cancer

Father and daughter holding hands

Cropped image. Spirit-Fire, CC License.

The word cancer invokes a plethora of emotions and questions. The impact is wide and affects the family, friends and community of the person diagnosed. Cancer can be a difficult diagnosis to manage and treat. However, there are advances made in medicine daily and the prognosis and survival rates are improving. This can be encouraging news for parents with children who have cancer, but what about the siblings?

Children who have a sister or brother with cancer experience a range of feelings and how these feelings are expressed is going to depend largely on their age and developmental level. Younger siblings may have more tantrums as they witness the changes in the family dynamics, whereas older children and teens may experience anxiety and depression as they begin to grapple with the awareness of their own mortality. Below are some helpful tips to consider.

Share information

Tell the siblings about the diagnosis and changes that will likely take place. Even younger children can sense that things are different and will fill in the missing pieces with wrong information, which could increase their anxiety. Use age-appropriate language and allow siblings to help when they can. Allowing siblings to help and keeping them informed can decrease feelings of jealousy, anger and attention-seeking behaviors.

Consistency is key

When a sister or brother has cancer, things can seem consistently chaotic for the entire family. It is important for the siblings to continue with their school and extracurricular activities as much as possible. Routines help children feel safe and secure. Sometimes other family members or friends may help with caretaking responsibilities, such as picking up from school or making dinner. Letting your children know about these changes and who they can expect when will help.

Make time

It is important for siblings to have individual time with their parents, especially if other family members are caring for them. Try to carve out time to spend with your healthy children; engage in a fun activity and inquire about their day. This will be a stress reliever for all and it teaches children how to cope and have fun in the face of adversity. Encourage your healthy children to talk about their feelings or worries, and feel free to share your own thoughts and feelings. This can help you stay connected with your healthy children and gives them a safe outlet to express themselves. Validate their feelings, even negative ones, and show unconditional love.

When to get help

Sometimes you can do the best that you can but it isn’t enough. Either healthy siblings or the whole family needs help coping with all of the changes. If you notice prolonged uncharacteristic behavior or changes in mood such as poor grades, disinterest in favorite activities or ange,r feel free to reach out to the clinical psychologist within the Oncology Department of your nearest children’s hospital.

– Carnigee Truesdale-Howard, PsyD, ABPP, Pediatric Psychologist with Beaumont Children’s Hospital Divisions of Hematology/Oncology & Gastroenterology

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