Relationships When Your Child Has Cancer
Childhood cancer exerts great pressure on relationships during treatment and long afterwards.
As a couple, you may be separated by great distances for long periods of time. Your emotions will run high, and you may adopt very different, possibly conflicting, coping strategies.
An earthquake causes greatest damage to buildings with existing structural flaws. In the same way, childhood cancer wrecks greatest damage on already fragile relationships.
Sadly, even seemingly indestructible relationships are not guaranteed to escape unscathed.
As dust settles after the initial shock of diagnosis, you must work as a team to reassemble the shattered fragments of your family. There are many things you can do to support one another as you move forward.
Respect Your Differences
You and your partner may adopt different approaches to your child’s cancer, and ways of coping. You may devour every piece of medical information, and feel empowered by the knowledge. Or you may feel overwhelmed by information.
You may be a good general manager of your child’s medical team, or you may simply want to be the comforter and leave the rest to the doctors.
Whatever the approach, respect your partner’s individuality. Recognize that you will not always view events in the same light. If your needs clash, discuss your feelings together, and develop strategies that work for both of you.
Share the Load
Share responsibility for hospital visits, and put your differing strengths to good use. Perhaps you are a researcher and advocate, or a steady reassuring presence and entertainer for your child. Divide your time according to the anticipated events, and share the load as much as possible.
You may not be able to attend the hospital together, but you can still discuss events with each other and share decision making. Even if distance separates you, try to include one another.
Ask the doctor if your partner can be included in consultations via speakerphone. This will enable you to both ask questions, feel involved and make fully informed treatment decisions together.
Ensure you both understand instructions for medication, care of the central line or cleaning of artificial eye. This will ensure your child’s care continues seamlessly through any unexpected absence of either partner.
Life goes on despite cancer. The family needs to eat, your other children must get to school and regular activities, and one or both of you may need to work to keep an income or insurance. Learn to prioritize the most important tasks each day – everything else can wait until your lives are a little less stressed.
Ask friends to help with tasks like walking the dog, driving your other children to school, grocery shopping or cooking meals. Don’t try to take on a superhuman workload as this is likely to create destructive stress and anger. Especially now, your child needs you to be calm and positive.
Spend Time Together
Ask a trusted friend to look after your child(ren) so you can go for a walk or share a meal together. Refreshing your relationship with time alone will help you both unwind, be a regular couple, talk, cry, and enjoy one another.
Share your feelings, needs, fears and hopes, even if you are separated by the demands of work or your child’s care. Talk regularly. Use the telephone, or write letters or emails (however short), and remember to say “I love you” often.
Parents caring for a child with cancer are at greater risk of relationship breakdown, but you don’t have to struggle through this experience alone. Professional help can strengthen your relationship and family life.
If your relationship becomes strained, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for professional support. Talk to your primary care doctor or your child’s social worker, or ask for a specialist referral.