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How To Support An Adult Child With Cancer

Posted on July 5, 2024 by Henry Ford Health Staff

With rates of cancer among people under age 50 skyrocketing, more and more parents are finding themselves supporting an adult child through a cancer crisis. 

“When your child has cancer, it’s natural to feel gripped with fear. Your first instinct may be to jump in with advice, support and offers to take over their every responsibility,” says Taisel Losada-Bekou, PsyD, a psychologist at Henry Ford Health. “But that may not be the best course of action—for you or your child.”

Strategies For Comforting An Adult Child With Cancer 

As a parent, you may yearn to bring calm and stability that helps counter the chaos of cancer. But not every adult child with the disease is ready to receive that support from their parents. In fact, some young adults may experience greater stress when their parents get involved in their care.

Unfortunately, knowing how to be a pillar of support for your child—to provide them with what they need during a challenging time—isn’t always clear-cut. But these six strategies offer a great starting point:

1. Don’t make assumptions.

It’s easy to make assumptions about what your child might need during a cancer crisis. After all, as their parent, you know them better than anyone else, right? 

“But when your child is an adult, particularly if they have a partner and family of their own, it’s important to step back and ask your child about the role they’d like you to play in their cancer journey,” Dr. Losada-Bekou says.

In fact, one of the most important things you can do as a parent caring for an adult child with cancer is ask, “How can I best support you?” Of course, the type of support each patient needs is as unique as the individual. Your job as the parent is to follow your child’s lead.

2. Listen up.

One of the biggest challenges for parents with children who have cancer is pressing pause on giving advice. Instead of listing all the things your child can do to support their health—what to eat (and when), how important it is to rest, that it’s okay to miss their son’s soccer game—create space for your child to share how they’re feeling. 

A few ways to break the ice:

  • How are you feeling today?
  • What can I do to best support you now, in this moment?
  • What responsibilities can I take off your plate?
  • I love you and I’m here to listen to anything you want to share. 

And if your adult child wants to talk about death and dying, it’s important to engage in those conversations. Listen to their wishes, dreams and concerns without judgement and don’t shy away from sharing your own feelings on the subject.

3. Know your place.

It can be tempting to reach out to the doctor, nurse navigator or other members of your child’s care team, but your child may not want you to take on that role. “That’s why communication is so important,” Dr. Losada-Bekou says. 

In the absence of direct information, it’s okay to ask what your child needs. Maybe they need help managing appointments, or maybe they would benefit from assistance at home, including childcare, meal preparation and transportation. 

The best way to find out what they really need is to ask.

4. Don’t go public with your child’s cancer diagnosis without permission.

Always let your child take the lead on who to tell about their cancer journey and when. And while it may not be easy, it’s important to remember that their cancer journey is their news to share, not yours. 

“Your adult child may not want to share their cancer journey with friends and family members,” Dr. Losada-Bekou says. 

That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to get the support you need, particularly since your child’s diagnosis can trigger your own feelings of guilt, helplessness, anger and fear. If confiding in family or friends isn’t something your child feels comfortable with, seeking help from a professional is a great option.

5. Pay attention to your child’s feelings. 

When your child faces challenging treatments that impact their appetite, energy or appearance, it’s natural to feel the need to nurture them through it. 

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Unfortunately, Dr. Losada-Bekou says that when parents try to fix the situation, they can inadvertently invalidate their child’s experiences. 

So instead of trying to make your child feel better when their hair falls out, or they can’t get out of bed, simply bear witness to their suffering with comforting words like, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this; I’m here for you.”

6. Make self-care a priority.

 Even when your child is going through cancer treatment, it’s important to prioritize your own self-care. After all, you can’t be a support to your child if you’re neglecting your own health and well-being. 

And remember that it’s okay to take a break from conversations about cancer. In fact, maintaining a sense of normalcy within the relationship can be helpful for both the adult child with cancer and the parent. 

“Check in with yourself and make sure you’re meeting your basic needs, getting adequate nutrition and sleep, and being direct about your schedule,” Dr. Losada-Bekou says. “At Henry Ford, there are not only resources for patients, but for their families and caregivers as well, so it’s important to ask for help.”

Reviewed by Taisel Losada-Bekou, PsyD, a psychologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Cancer - Detroit.

Categories : FeelWell

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