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When a parent gets cancer – a guide to supporting your loved one

  • 05.16.2018
father and son talking on sofa

With spring being the season of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we’re reflecting on our relationships with our parents and how they can be affected by a cancer diagnosis. How do you talk to a parent about a serious illness? How do you take on a caregiver role while helping them maintain their sense of independence?


A cancer diagnosis can instantly flip the dynamic between parent and child. Suddenly the parent is no longer the strong protector and they need their child’s help. Even acknowledging the cancer may feel like an abdication of stature and an invasion of privacy. While every family will handle this situation differently, here are some guidelines you may find helpful.


Communicate first, early and often

Parents are not always forthcoming with their children about their personal health issues – even their adult children. The most often cited reason for a parent not telling their grown child about a cancer diagnosis is to “protect their child from worry and stress” over something that is out of their control.


Linda D did not tell her children about her cancer. "I just asked my doctor to do what was needed, no questions…No one’s interference, opinions, suggestions,” she shared on our Facebook page. “My body, my illness, my strength.”


Nancy Gerber however had been hurt by family secrecy, so she was up front with her kids about her diagnosis. "My sister did not tell us until she was stage IV and I was so upset with her. I did not want that to happen between my children and me


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However and whenever you find out about your parent’s cancer, think about how you can help them on their journey (versus how you may feel wounded). Schedule time to sit down and talk it through, including treatment and home care needs, and how they’re feeling, physically and emotionally. Health is personal, so let your parent determine who should know about their cancer and how much they should know. Then offer to communicate with those they want informed.


Many families find it difficult to talk about cancer and serious health issues, but open respectful communication can help manage expectations and prevent tension down the road. In some cases, a professional counselor or support group may be useful to get the conversation going.


Determine caregiving role

Among the topics you should discuss with your parent after a cancer diagnosis is your caregiver role. In addition to determining what you can and are willing to do, based on work and other family responsibilities, it’s important to understand what your parent wants and needs from you. Some may not be comfortable having a child tend to their personal hygiene needs, for example, while others may only want a family member assisting them. 


RELATED: Caregivers need care, too — finding balance in your role.

  • Create lists of what needs to be done – from giving medication and attending appointments to grocery shopping and pet walking.
  • With your parent’s permission, meet with their healthcare team to review their treatment plan, options and homecare instructions.
  • Make copies of key legal documents, including advance directive, power of attorney and health insurance.
  • Create a list of people who can support you in your role, including other family members and close friends. Your parent’s cancer diagnosis could make a large impact on your daily both physically and emotionally. Don’t be afraid to let others shoulder some of the responsibilities.


The American Society of Clinical Oncology has developed this Guide to Caregiving filled with information about looking after someone with cancer. While Washoe County-focused, The Community Foundation of Western Nevada has also developed a guide to caregiving and a caregiver resource website that may be helpful.


Give them what they need

If your parent is already accustomed to you playing an active role in their life, it will be natural for you to take an active role in their cancer journey.


However, if you’ve been less involved in your parent’s life, a cancer diagnosis may necessitate a change in roles – one with which they, or you, are unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable. Give yourself and your parent time and space to adjust.


Part of that adjustment may necessitate your parent giving up some control. Maintaining independence and a sense of control for any cancer patient is challenging. When the patient is a parent and the child has taken over caregiving responsibilities, this challenge can be exacerbated. Try and empathize if they seem frustrated, angry or even aloof.


If you find yourself becoming a caregiver to a parent, provide choices whenever possible, include them in decisions and give them space when they need it. Listen to what they need and allow them the opportunity and freedom to talk about how they feel. In other words, try to just be there for them.


For more cancer education and patient resources, visit the Sierra Nevada Cancer Center website. For current cancer-related health news delivered to your inbox, subscribe to Sierra Nevada Cancer Center’s Newsletter.





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