Families Coping With Childhood Cancer

A Child With Cancer

Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease for children. According to the National Childhood Cancer Foundation, about 11,000 children are diagnosed with cancer annually. Although we've made great strides with treatment, more than 2,000 children and teens still die every year.

A diagnosis of cancer is particularly devastating for families. When a child is born, parents build expectations of a happy, predictable life. A diagnosis of cancer throws an emotional, life-changing wrench into those plans. Suddenly, families have to cope with uncertainties, a loss of control over their future, and the potential death of a loved one. Parents want the best for their child and may seek second opinions and information from many sources, leaving many feeling overwhelmed and burdened.

Once treatment decisions are made, there are often drastic changes in routine. Often children need to be hospitalized at specialized centers hours away from home. Parents struggle trying to balance the need to stay with the sick child against employment and care for siblings. Hospitals themselves can be very stressful environments. A seemingly endless number of visits by doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, invasive testing, and treatment (surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy) may overwhelm and stress all family members.

The uncertainty and emotional toll don't end when the child comes home. Many children continue to need treatment and care for some time. Parents suddenly find themselves thrust in the role of a health care worker – giving the child medications, monitoring intravenous lines, central catheters, and dealing with the side effects of treatments (i.e., nausea, vomiting, weakness, infections). Sudden, severe illness or a change in the child's status may interrupt family plans or lead to a trip to the emergency room in the middle of the night. Instead of planning for a future, families must deal with ever-changing uncertainties, and hope that a future for the child exists.

Impact of Childhood Cancer on Marriage

The demands and stress of caring for a child with cancer can be tough on a marriage. Yet, while some marriages seem to come apart at the seams, others appear to become stronger. Researchers are hoping to help couples keep their marriages strong during the struggle with childhood cancer.

In one study, parents will be given psychological tests to determine their marriage stability. If, based on the results of the tests, the marriage is deemed to be "at-risk," couples will be referred to a marriage and family therapist for counseling. Marriages that are on shaky terms are less likely to survive any kind of sudden life-changing impact. That's even more true in the case of childhood cancer. So researchers are hoping to find out if early risk assessment and referral may help save some of these marriages. That's important because strong marriages are not just good for the couple, but the whole family as well. In some cases, parental support and family cohesiveness may provide the only sense of stability for a sick child.

For information about childhood cancer:

Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation, PO Box 498, Kensington, MD 20895, www.candlelighters.org

CureSearch, 440 E. Huntington Dr., PO Box 60012 , Arcadia , CA 91066-6012 , www.curesearch.org

National Childhood Cancer Foundation, 440 E. Huntington Dr., PO Box 60012, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.nccf.org

For information about marriage counseling, or referral to a marriage and family therapist –

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 112 South Alfred St., Alexandria, VA 22314, www.aamft.org