- Keep communication open: It’s important to acknowledge the feelings you both have and to talk about the situation, as and when you feel able to. It’s also ok to ask them what they need or how you can support them.
- Respect their decisions: It’s natural to want what is best for your child but remember that they are an adult and that their choices about their diagnosis and treatment may not always align with what you would do or what you would like them to do.
- Don’t forget your own wellbeing: When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it can be easy to put all your energy into supporting them, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. Remember to make time for yourself to rest, process your own emotions, look after your mental health, and engage in activities you enjoy.
It can be one of the most difficult things to deal with as a parent when your adult child is diagnosed with cancer. As parents, we feel our role is to protect our children from harm and we never stop being a parent, however old our children are.
When your grown child has cancer, it’s understandable if you want to support them but are unsure of quite how to do this. Here Reta Sowton, a cancer nurse specialist at Perci, shares how you can support your adult son or daughter from their diagnosis, through treatment and beyond, whilst still respecting their boundaries.
Coping with your feelings
If your adult son or daughter gets diagnosed with cancer, it can cause a huge upheaval in your life and leave you feeling a range of intense emotions. These emotions can include guilt, helplessness, anger, fear, and loss of control, and they are all valid.
Your parental instinct might be to treat your adult child as though they were a child again but it’s important to remember they are a grown up. You might also worry about protecting them and not showing them how you feel but cancer doesn’t just affect the person with the diagnosis so it’s normal if you are struggling to process the news and aren’t able to always maintain a positive outlook.
How to help your daughter or son with cancer
If you want to know how you can help your son or daughter with cancer, the best thing you can do is ask them what they need. However, there are some key things you can do:
Be aware of their partner and try not to be overbearing
Your son or daughter may have a partner, children, or other people that also want to help or that your child may turn to for support.
See this as the positive it is; your child has plenty of people that love them, and you can all work together to provide care. Refrain from trying to organise assistance or dictate people’s roles in the situation unless your son or daughter specifically asks you to.
Offer practical support
When undergoing treatment, your son or daughter may feel poorly and be unable to do the same things they did before their diagnosis. Therefore, they might appreciate practical support from you for example running errands, or household chores such as cooking and cleaning. Ask them if there’s anything you can do and then decide what you can commit to based on your time constraints, energy levels and mental capacity.
Ask if they want company for appointments
Your son or daughter might want to attend appointments alone to spare the feelings of their loved ones. But, if they are feeling worried or believe they could benefit from a second person who can also absorb information and ask questions, then they might appreciate you going with them.
If they have an appointment coming up, ask if they want company. Alternatively, you can let them know you will accompany them to any appointments if they want you to and leave it to them to ask.
Offering emotional support
As well as offering your help in a practical, hands-on way, you might also be wondering how you can emotionally support your son or daughter. There are some crucial things to keep in mind:
How they will be feeling
Try not to take it personally if your adult child doesn’t want to talk about their diagnosis or treatment, or refuses offers of help. They will be trying to process their thoughts and feelings, they may want to protect you from getting upset or hurt, or they may simply be too overwhelmed or exhausted to communicate.
Your adult child may want to talk about their mortality or fears of dying, and this can be particularly difficult. If you can, allow them to talk and listen, and acknowledge their feelings and your own.
Changes to the relationship dynamic
Following a diagnosis, the dynamics of your relationship with your son or daughter may be sent into disarray, but keep in mind that your adult child is independent and autonomous. They may want to navigate their diagnosis on their own or with their partner and may not always include you.
Although not easy, it’s important to remember that it is ‘their’ diagnosis, ‘their’ cancer, and ‘their’ choice. This can be difficult if you don’t agree with their choices or decisions, so keep reminding yourself to respect their decisions
Also, remember that your son or daughter is still the same person they were and not everything is about their cancer. You may still have disagreements or arguments in the same way as you did before they were diagnosed. You can also still laugh and have fun. When you can, try to do the things you enjoy together, talk about day-to-day things, future events, and things you remember together.
Changes to appearance
Cancer treatment can cause changes to a person’s physical appearance, and this can affect their self-esteem. Be prepared for changes to how your son or daughter looks and be aware that they will likely have a range of feelings about this.
Some cancers may result in scars or a stoma that can be hard to come to terms with. They may have anxiety about looking at or touching this area of their body and might ask you to be there with them when seeing it for the first time.
When your daughter has cancer
If your daughter has cancer, she may lose her hair, experience changes to how her skin looks and feels and have weight fluctuations. If she has breast cancer, she may even undergo a mastectomy. This can have a significant impact on how she feels about herself.
Allow her to share her feelings with you and try not to invalidate her concerns or liken her experience to anyone else’s. Show her love and give her sincere compliments. Offer to help her find ways to feel her best. This might mean going shopping with her for a new outfit or taking her for a spa day, for example.
When your son has cancer
Men also suffer from changes in their appearance due to the side effects of treatment such as hair loss, dry skin, and swelling. All of these can affect their confidence and make them feel less masculine.
If they have cancer that affects their reproductive or digestive system such as prostate, testicular or colorectal cancer, they may even have feelings of embarrassment, which is completely normal.
Be there for them to talk to when they need to. They might just need some reassurance about their appearance or may like help to set some goals to overcome their appearance anxiety. If they are after practical support, get on board with ideas. You could try helping them find a moisturiser that soothes their skin for instance or go with them to find a hat that gives them confidence in social settings.
Looking after yourself
It can be easy to put all your energy into supporting your son or daughter, but they may not want or need you to always be available and it’s important to look after yourself too. Make sure you give yourself time to rest and do things that you enjoy.
There is a range of cancer charities and other organisations that you can access for advice and support. If you are struggling with your mental health and emotions, talk to trusted family members, your GP, a clinical nurse specialist, or a counsellor. It can also be helpful to tell your employer that a loved one has cancer so that they can support you at work too.