Advice for parenting children while going through cancer

Posted by Guest Author on 10 March 2021

parents hand on a child

Based on personal experience, this article provides advice for helping your children through a parent’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.

By Sara Olsher

What do I tell my child about my breast cancer?

When I was first told that I had cancer, my first thought was about my six-year-old child. What would I tell her? How would she handle it? How would she deal with a long recovery, and even worse, if I died, what would happen to her? 

I left the doctor’s office with a thick booklet titled, “a Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment” and an absolutely blank mind. I’d gone into shock, and over the next several days I repeatedly convinced myself that the doctor didn’t actually diagnose me with cancer — I must have misunderstood. 

After flipping through the booklet and finding zero information on juggling kids and cancer, I took to the internet and came up virtually empty-handed. Advice on talking to kids about cancer was sparse and vague, and I knew I was on my own.

Start with a book

Like many parents facing a tough situation, my first thought was to buy a book to explain cancer to my daughter.

Books are used the world over to introduce kids to hard things. Kids need (and like!) to have concepts repeated, and will return to a book over and over, relying on it to put their minds at ease. That’s why starting with a book is so helpful.

I had a few requirements:

  • I wanted it to be straightforward and not scary, with friendly illustrations and no talk about death (I wanted that to be my job, and only if it was absolutely necessary).
  • I wanted to explain the science of what cancer actually is. With my background in psychology, I knew that the truth would make it easier for her to cope.
  • I needed my daughter to know that this wasn’t in her control. She didn’t cause cancer, and I didn’t want a book to imply that her hugs could heal it.

Six kids’ books about cancer later, I again came up empty-handed. I couldn’t understand why there were so few resources — and that’s when I decided to create my own.

When it was released, my book What Happens When Someone I Love Has Cancer immediately went to #1 on Amazon, a tribute to just how desperately parents needed it. 

Taming the chaos – my advice to you

  • Kids rely on routines to feel safe; they need to know what to expect each day, and cancer treatment can disrupt everything. For my daughter, life started to feel chaotic. All of the things I used to do were done by other people, from school drop-offs to cooking dinner. 
  • To help kids feel safe, keep to a routine as much as possible. Keep their morning and evening activities in the same order, even if different people are helping. 
  • A routine chart that displays their morning and evening activities can help bring attention to the things they can expect each day.
  • Creating a visual calendar became a big part of relieving my daughter’s stress. Just like a routine chart helps with daily activities, a calendar helps with weekly activities.
  • On the calendar, I shared who would do school drop-off and pick-up each day and when I’d be having various treatments
  • I also tried to guess how I’d be feeling each day based on where I was in my chemo cycle. This helped her to prepare herself emotionally for days when I felt exhausted.

Staying connected with your child during cancer treatment

Speaking of exhaustion, it’s hard to stay connected when you’re too tired to do a lot of the activities you used to do together, like riding bikes or playing outside. 

When I created a visual calendar for parents with cancer, I made sure to include stickers for quiet activities that are easy enough to do when you’re exhausted. 

These activities can include things like playing cards, doing a craft, reading, watching a movie, or doing a puzzle. My main piece of advice? If you’re really tired, set a timer for 15 minutes and set your child’s expectations for the time limit before the activity begins.

Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial. By talking to your kids about your cancer treatment process using a book and calendar, you’re sending the message that it’s safe to talk to you about their feelings, which makes it less likely that they’ll keep any of their big emotions to themselves.

How to know if your kids are struggling with your diagnosis

Cancer is hard for the whole family, and everyone will take a ride on the Struggle Bus at some point through this process. 

For kids, struggling can look like:

  • Withdrawal;
  • increased or worsening tantrums;
  • Fears that may or may not be related to cancer;
  • Complaints of tummy aches and headaches.

If you start to see behavior like this, reiterate that they can talk to you about any of their concerns, and also make sure they know of other adults in their lives who are safe to talk to, like teachers, family friends, or relatives. My daughter told my mom and my boyfriend things she didn’t want to tell me, and their support helped her a lot.

Go easy on yourself

Ever since I started my company, Mighty + Bright, to help families through hard things like cancer, I’ve had parents facing all sorts of tough circumstances reach out and confess how guilty they feel.

Cancer is not something you are putting your family through. Cancer is putting you all through this. It’s not hard because you’re making it hard, it’s hard because sometimes life is hard. Release your guilt and go easy on yourself – guilt is the last thing you need.

Along those lines, I will leave you with this: No one gets out of life without hardship. Your kids are facing hardship young, but they are facing it with you there to hold their hand. You’re resilient, and you’re raising resilient kids. Good job.

About the author

Sara Olsher is the founder of Mighty & Bright, an organisation in the US focusing on support systems for children who are faced with traumatic situations such parents going through cancer or a divorce.

Further information

Future Dreams hold a range of support groups, classes, workshops and events to help you and your carers during your breast cancer diagnosis. These are held both online and in person at the London-based Future Dreams House. To see what’s on offer and to book your place, see here.

To return to the homepage of our Information Hub, click here where you can access more helpful information, practical advice, personal stories and more.

Reviewed October 2023

The information and content provided in all guest articles is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. It is important that all personalised care decisions should be made by your medical team. Please contact your medical team for advice on anything covered in this article and/or in relation to your personal situation. Please note that unless otherwise stated, Future Dreams has no affiliation to the guest author of this article and he/she/they have not been paid to write this article. There may be alternative options/products/information available which we encourage you to research when making decisions about treatment and support. The content of this article was created by Sara Olsher and we accept no responsibility for the accuracy or otherwise of the contents of this article.


Sylvie Henry and Danielle Leslie founders of Future Dreams breast cancer support
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