For parents, hearing the words, “You have cancer,” is traumatic. But learning your child has the life-threatening illness is a hard-hitting emotional experience no parent hopes he or she will ever have to face.
Experts say that parents who receive such news often describe experiencing shock, feeling numb, or feeling as if they have been hit over the head.
Parents also report feeling confused or being unable to hear, remember, or think clearly when the doctor explains their child’s diagnosis or treatment plan.
A cancer diagnosis doesn’t just affect the patient. It affects the whole family, says Diane Fairclough, DrPH, MSPH, CU Cancer Center investigator and director of the Analytics Core at the Colorado Health Outcomes Center.
Family members of a child with cancer often suffer from various forms of distress associated with the child’s illness. Parents report feelings of anxiety, depression, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and distress related to the adjustment of the child's siblings. These challenges are especially pronounced at diagnosis when families struggle to adapt.
Siblings often report similar feelings too. They may feel anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, neglected and guilty, according to the American Psychological Association.
Fairclough and her colleagues at the University of Rochester, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas El Paso, Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital have been studying ways to help families cope.
They’ve learned that when you support the mother you support the family.
“Earlier research shows that a mom is the keystone of a family. After a child’s cancer diagnosis, if mom is stressed and not coping, you see the effects on the marriage and on siblings as well,” said Fairclough.
The researchers carried out a multi-site clinical trial with 309 mothers to see if providing training in problem-solving skills to parents can lessen the emotional impact on the entire family.
The help is offered shortly after the child’s diagnosis to kickstart the adaptive process.