5 Tips For Helping Your Kids Through Your Cancer Treatment

by Sara OlsherSurvivor, Breast CancerMay 17, 2021View more posts from Sara Olsher

Photo credit – Mighty + Bright

When I was first told that I had cancer, my first thought was the same as most other parents: What about my daughter? 

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.

Overall, my experience with cancer as a parent with a young child was a lonely one. I was determined to make sure that no other parent felt as lost as I did.

  1. Be Honest, Clear, and Age-Appropriate

Talking to my daughter about my cancer diagnosis topped my list of “conversations I don’t want to have.” To make it easier, I looked for a good book to help.

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).
  • 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.

If you find yourself needing to have this conversation and can’t wait for a book to be delivered, I made one of my books, Cancer Party!, free to download. I also have a free guide for talking to your kids about cancer.

  1. Tame the Chaos

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.

  1. Stay Emotionally Connected

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.

  1. Stay Aware

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.

  1. 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.


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.

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6 Comments

  • This is so great! My two daughters were 4 and 6 when I was diagnosed and it was certainly another component to everything I was doing in how I approached talking to them about everything. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Sara Olsher says:

      Thanks you so much, Christian! I’m glad you found it helpful. 🙂
      Sara

  • jennifer cervantes says:

    This is great! My 5 kids 5-15 all reacted differently to my diagnosis. My older 2 acted like I was fine and nothing changed, my middle one was more anxiety ridden and withdrawn (it didn’t help that she also lost a classmate around the same time to a car accident), and my younger 2 would tell anyone and everyone all about me having cancer and that was why grandma does the school stuff. My biggest hurtle was there are no resources for the kids in our area for therapy other than calling insurance and getting approval. While there are groups for adults there are none for kids whose family may have cancer in terms of support groups.

    1. Sara Olsher says:

      I’m so glad you found it helpful, Jennifer. I totally hear you on the support group/therapy issue. I’ve been told that Camp Kesem is an awesome resource, but it’s in the summer and a sleep-away thing, so definitely not the same. Sometimes Hospice also offers support groups for kids, but depending on the area they might only be for kids who have lost a parent, which could be terrifying for a kid who hasn’t. <3 Definitely a missed opportunity.

  • Jenney Bitner says:

    So i had 3 kids when i was diagnosed (3, 5 and 8) and i was 24 weeks pregnant with my 4th. Cancer party is awesome. Thank you for making that a free download. The baby i was pregnant with just turned 1 and I’m still here and don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. Not that I get to control it, but I sure can keep fighting.

    1. Sara Olsher says:

      Thank you so much for the comment, Jenney, and I’m so glad you found Cancer Party helpful! Lots of love to you and your whole fam! <3

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