No one wants to belong to the cancer club — but once you’re in it, you’re in it for life.
Two years ago, when a persistent cough and mild chest pressure turned out to be a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma tumor the size of a dollar bill compressing my husband’s airway, we joined that club. My husband was 31 and I was 32. Our children were 4, 3, and less than 1.
Welcome to the cancer club.
According to the National Cancer Institute, 38% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime. The cancer club is not small. But unlike my husband, the majority of those people are diagnosed between 55 and 84.
Dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis by itself is overwhelming, but trying to parent young children at the same time presents a whole other set of challenges. Things like:
- Dealing with your children’s fears about death as well as your own
- Explaining chemo and extended hospitalizations to a 3-year-old
- Finding childcare and having enough energy to keep up with kids
- Family planning and fertility
It felt isolating and lonely, and I had a hard time finding resources that were helpful and appropriate for our season of life.
If you are a young parent and in the cancer club, my heart aches for you because I know many of the unique struggles you are now facing. I am not an expert, but I will happily share my experience — anytime. These are some of the things that were helpful to me.
Let someone else manage logistics
The most helpful thing my friends did was to organize, plan, and manage things so I didn’t have to. As a parent and a caregiver, I was overwhelmed by the logistics and the lack of sleep.
I had an amazing friend organize help for us, and that was a godsend. She used Lotsa Helping Hands to organize everything, but Meal Train or Take Them a Meal are also good resources. Every few weeks, she asked what our tangible needs were, and she wouldn’t take a polite brush off. House cleaning, school pickups, middle-of-the-night childcare (we had lots of ER visits/stays due to no immune system and lots of winter school germs), meals that felt like love, grocery delivery, and researching things for me were all huge gifts to us. You focus on what is essential and let someone else manage the rest.
If you are in the cancer club, please say yes when your friends offer things that are helpful. If they don’t offer, ask! You will need people with you in this — especially for your kids’ sakes.
Connect with others
Beyond taking some logistics off my plate, the most helpful thing friends did was show up. Be available. Offer tangibly. Not, “What can I do to help?” but, “I’m running errands — what can I drop off for you?” or “What do your kids need today?” People acknowledging that our kids were hurting meant a lot.
It is hard for your people to show up if they don’t know what you need and what’s going on. We found that writing about our process was helpful. Sites like CaringBridge offer an easy way to help others be with you in your journey. Even if it’s just a few friends, find your tribe of people with whom you will share the experience.
When it feels difficult to connect with friends, connecting with others going through similar things can be helpful. Dana-Farber has online cancer forums, as do most cancer treatment centers. Connect your child to resources like Camp Kasem so they also can connect with peers who understand what they’re going through.
Seek professional counseling
Our oldest started seeing a counselor a few months into chemo, and that was hugely helpful. Children grieve deeply, and their fears are real. It matters that we honor their grief and give them the resources they need to process it. It was very hard for us to find counselors for young children, but good places to start are your cancer treatment center, the local children’s hospital, social workers that you know, or your place of worship.
Thanks to the cutting-edge, compassionate care we received at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, my husband is now one year into remission. And while every doctor’s appointment still triggers my PTSD (because it was/is a trauma), we are breathing a little easier. While we will always be members of the cancer club, we are thankful to have made it to this point. We owe no small debt of gratitude to the people who supported us and these resources that we benefited from.
Additional Cancer Resources:
Books for kids
- “Life Isn’t Always a Day at the Beach“
- “Big Tree is Sick“
- “The Invisible String“
- CancerCare Reading List (recommended books about cancer for children)
- Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer
- Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With a Parent’s Terminal Illness
- Having Cancer and Young Children: A Mother’s Advice
- Parenting with Cancer: Advice from Survivors
- Parenting With Cancer
- Stupid Cancer (an organization and directory of resources for young adults with cancer — not all resources are helpful for parents, but many are relevant)
- Inheritance of Hope (for those young families facing the loss of a parent due to cancer)