7 mins. read

How to support your parent with cancer

How to support your parent with cancer

Key Takeaways

  • Keep talking: Try to keep communication as open as possible, acknowledging the feelings and emotions both you and your parent are experiencing. Their natural instinct is to know that you are ok so don’t forget to share your feelings, whilst asking how you can support them at the same time.
  • Communication with others is key: You may want to be there as much as you can for your parent, but forming a support network with other family members and your parent’s friends will ensure that support is always there – without burning yourself out whilst juggling your own commitments.
  • Remember your own wellbeing is important too: Supporting a parent with cancer can be emotionally and physically draining, it is important to take time out for you to process your own emotions and to do things which support your wellbeing.

Supporting a parent with cancer can be one of the hardest things to navigate in life; a time when one of the people you might usually look to for support is the person you need to be there for instead. It can feel like a reversal of roles which can be difficult to get used to, and may lead to your parent feeling reluctant to accept help or to share details or struggles with you.

Here Reta Sowton, a cancer nurse specialist at Perci Health, shares how you can support your parent with their diagnosis, treatment and emotions whilst supporting your own wellbeing.

Dealing with your own feelings

If your parent is diagnosed with cancer, it can turn your world on its head in an instant. Things which were important to you previously might not matter anymore; the only thing you will want now is for your parent to be ok. Feelings of fear, confusion, sadness and injustice may become default emotions, you may also feel alone even if you have siblings. 

As you work through your feelings, you may feel disconnected from friends, other family members and perhaps even your parent, yet it is important to have support for you too. Make sure to reach out to your own support network or get advice on how to support someone with cancer.

How to support a parent with cancer

The best way to support your parent is to ask them what they need, however a little perseverance and understanding may be required if they are determined to be there for you instead. Here are some key things you can do to help without imposing on their sense of identity as a parent:

Knowing what to say to your parent with cancer

It can be difficult knowing what to say to a parent with cancer, and even more difficult if the prognosis is unclear or if it is terminal. Try to avoid saying things such as “you’re going to be fine”, and make sure you have important conversations no matter how difficult they are. 

You may feel unable to talk about your parent’s desires such as end of life care, funeral arrangements and their wishes, yet it is important that they can talk to someone about these things if they can. This is where a support network becomes invaluable.

It can also be difficult to know what to say after recovery. Your parent will have a different view of the world and may want to make big changes in their life. They may experience survivor’s guilt, so it is important to keep talking plus to be mindful of anniversaries such as diagnosis and the date they were given the all clear.

Become an ally with their friends and other family members

There is often no bond as strong as that of a parent and child, so much so that other relationships – and their desire to also help and support your parent – may be easily overlooked. It could be that your parent is more likely to open up to these people without wanting to burden you, in which case it will be beneficial to talk to them to ask how your parent really feels and what you can do to help. You can be there for each other whilst providing shared support.

Offer practical support or put it in place

When attending appointments and undergoing treatment, your parent may feel unwell and may be unable to do things in the same way as they did prior to their diagnosis. Offering practical support such as helping with chores, running errands and giving lifts may be appreciated depending on who offers what. 

Your parent may feel embarrassed if you are doing tasks they would normally do for you or have done in the past. In this instance it might be that a friend or other family member is better suited. You could talk to your parent to see how they feel about accepting your help, plus ask your support network what they can help with and when, making sure it does not compromise their mental capacity or other commitments.

Depending on how your parent is feeling, a good way to offer practical support could be to treat them to a meal out or even a meal in, making it feel more like a treat than help. 

Offering emotional support

As well as offering practical, hands-on help and support, you might also wonder how you can support your parent emotionally – without them feeling as though it should be the other way round. There are some key things to consider to help keep your relationship as normal as possible:

Acknowledge a change in relationship dynamic

The dynamics of the relationship you have with your parent will feel different following a diagnosis, with a potential situation where you are both worrying about each other rather than it being the usual role of parent and child. 

It can feel confusing and frustrating for both sides, and can lead to misunderstandings and feelings of disconnection if your parent hides how they are feeling or the level of help they need. 

Keep talking, keep showing you care, and keep your shared support network close. Allowing you both to sit with your feelings is important too, avoiding trying to ‘fix things’.

Try to keep a sense of ‘normal’ as much as possible, ensuring not everything is about their cancer. Do things you enjoy together where you can, talk about your life, make plans for the future, disagree about the things you usually disagree about, and remember to still have fun when possible. 

Looking after yourself

Helping a parent with cancer is a really upsetting time, with difficult conversations such as if they want to stop treatment, wish to talk about uncomfortable things from the past or would like to discuss how they would like to die if their cancer is terminal. 

It is important that you have your own support network as well as the one for your parent in place. It is also important to focus on your wellbeing too, with activities such as journaling, counselling, yoga, meditation and talking to friends, enabling you to care for your parent the best you can.

There are many cancer charities and other organisations you can access for advice and support; as well as your GP, counsellors or clinical nurse specialist there to support your mental health and emotions. 

It can also be helpful to tell your employer that a loved one has cancer so that they can support you at work too.

Here at Perci, our cancer specialists are here to help those affected by cancer. Ask your employer to find out how Perci Health can support you and your workplace whilst you are going through this time.

Find out more about how we help those supporting someone with cancer at Perci Health.