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By Hester Hill Schnipper

When Your Child Has Cancer

Consider these eight tips to help manage your life

By Hester Hill Schnipper

This must be one of the hardest things in the world: Your young child has cancer, and you are unable to do a single thing to change that reality.
In this difficult situation, many factors affect the challenges parents face.

These can include the age of the child, the diagnosis and treatment, whether there are siblings, the distance between your home and the hospital, work responsibilities, financial pressures, and the availability of support from family and friends.

For all parents, however, the central feelings are sadness and worry. Nothing but the safe passage of time and seeing your child recover will alleviate those concerns. In the meantime, however, there are strategies to make life a little more manageable.

1. Take care of yourself. The importance of this cliché cannot be overemphasized. If you collapse from exhaustion, the whole family goes down. You must sleep, eat right, occasionally exercise (walking up and down the halls does not count), and take some breaks. Some parents manage this by covering alternate nights at the hospital. Others rely on a grandparent or aunt or uncle to help with this duty. Remember that there are competent nurses and doctors with your child 24/7.

2. Know yourself and how much information you want from the doctors. Some parents become experts on their child’s disease, while others want to hear only what they need to know at any given moment. There is no right or wrong here, just what works best for you. Be aware that you and your spouse may have different information needs, and that is OK, too.

3. Take short breaks. Find a park near the hospital and eat your lunch on a bench, have your nails done at a nearby salon, go to a movie matinee with a friend. The theme: Get out of the hospital and remind yourself that there is a world waiting outside.

4. Accept all offers of help and learn to ask for help. Never say “no” when someone tries to be useful. Set up a free account on the helpful and private website to identify what you need and how your friends and family can respond. Include everything: doing your laundry, giving you prepaid phone or gas cards, carpooling your child’s siblings to activities, weeding your garden.

5. Update the outgoing message on your answering machine. Include a summary of the medical situation (whatever you are comfortable sharing with anyone who calls). Make sure the message does not promise that you will call back. It is possible to add a second mailbox to your voicemail if you want to separate calls related to your child’s health from other family business.

6. Deputize friends or family members to be a special support network for your other children. Ask these adults to establish one-on-one relationships that can be counted upon for nurturing and fun.

7. Always give your child honest and age-appropriate information. Of course, the emphasis should be positive, but you never want to lie. If you aren’t sure what to say, talk to the hospital social worker. He or she is an excellent resource about this and other concerns.

8. Make good use of the very best support resource: other parents. Talk to them in the clinic, doctor’s office or hospital. Find out if there are local support groups, and go.


Hester Hill SchnipperHester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor and the chief of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She also manages an online breast cancer support group on the hospital’s website.


(photo: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center)