Cancer can affect a person’s entire social network: children (young or adult), aging parents, siblings, extended family, friends, and colleagues at work. Everyone is affected to some degree, and it helps if this is acknowledged.
Impact on Younger Children & Teens
Children understand the world through their parents. How a child reacts depends very much on how the parents or other close adults are dealing with their own feelings. When a parent is sick or experiencing stress, children of all ages can sense this change, even if they cannot identify or understand the cause. It is important to have open discussions with children so that they do not develop their own ideas about the cause of stress. You can always promise to be honest, open and loving to your children — and sometimes that’s enough.
Explain the facts of cancer in an age appropriate way that allows children to understand and participate in what is happening. For example, including children in discussions about how to help their mother feel better lets them feel they are contributing without giving them too much responsibility. Children cannot be shielded from all of the stressful parts of life, so it is important to teach them how to cope with this and other challenges. Signs to watch for that suggest a child could use some help:
- Regression (acting/behaving younger than the child’s age)
- Changes in a child’s sleeping or eating patterns
- A drop in school grades
- Changes in behavior
- Getting into arguments with friends
- Emotional withdrawal
Teenagers may find it especially difficult to cope with cancer, combined with all of the common challenges in adolescent lives. They might be more able to share their fears and emotions with a trusted adult outside the immediate family, such as a grandparent, teacher, or athletic coach, who can lend support. Cancer is not the same as other major life events; it is ongoing and often unpredictable. It is important to work together as a family to plan how each individual will have their needs met during and after cancer treatment. It helps to include children in decisions on how to “cut back” to make time for new family routines. Maintaining or developing a new family routine can help to minimize the impact and stress on everyone.
Friends and Co-Workers
Many people have a wide social network outside the family with whom they interact on a regular basis, including coworkers, teachers of school-aged children, friends and neighbors. Some of these relationships will be closer than others, and you may choose to share information about your loved one’s situation with these individuals, or not. It is common for some relationships to grow stronger while others become weaker during stressful times. Both you and your loved one will want to have access to people who can offer support when you are having a tough day. If you don’t feel that you have enough people who can help you through emotional or practical issues, you should absolutely consider a caregiver support group. Professional counselors familiar with working with people affected by cancer can also be helpful.
Social Relationships & the Workplace
If your loved one chooses not to tell coworkers or friends about his or her cancer diagnosis, it is important to honor his or her decision. If you feel the choice conflicts with your own, you should invite a conversation about this. As a caregiver and loved one, you may express your concern. Your loved one’s preferences and decisions should always be respected, and it is important to work as a team to figure out how you both can best negotiate this journey.