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Cancer and Your Family: Care Instructions


When someone in the family has cancer, it causes changes and concerns in the family. No two families react the same. Your relatives may feel shocked, sad, depressed, or even angry when they learn that you have cancer. Often, they want to help but are not sure how.

It is normal for everyone in the family to feel upset and fearful at first. Family members must deal with their own emotions while also supporting the person with cancer. You may wonder how to tell your children, especially if they are young. You may worry about money, your family duties, and where you fit in the family. Thinking ahead can help prepare your family for coping with the cancer treatment period.

If your family members ask to help you, give them specific tasks they can do. This can help ease their frustration, make them feel useful, and help them to feel better by helping you.

Cancer causes many families to look at their values and adjust their priorities. But families usually learn to overcome the problems.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Tell your family the truth. You may not feel like telling your children or other family members that you have cancer. You may want to protect them from worrying and feeling pain. But it is likely they will sense that something is wrong anyway.
  • Think about talking to a counsellor or your doctor for help on how to talk to your children about cancer.
  • Choose a time and place to tell your children. Try to pick a time to talk when you and your children are feeling calm. You may want to have another person there to help you. Young children may focus on how your illness will affect them. This is normal.
  • If you have not already done so, prepare an advance care plan. An advance care plan provides instructions to your doctor and family members about what kind of care you want if you become unable to speak or express yourself. They also name the person you would want to make decisions for you if you were no longer able to do so yourself.

Talking to young children

  • Tell your children that you are sick and that doctors are working to make you better. It is better to tell children the truth than to let them imagine the worst.
  • Tell your children the name of your cancer and the part of your body it is in.
  • Make it clear that your children did not do anything to make you sick.
  • Explain that cancer cannot be passed from one person to another.
  • Give your children time to ask questions and express how they feel.
  • Let other adults in your children's lives know about your cancer. This may include teachers and coaches. Encourage your children to talk to others about their feelings.
  • Tell your children that you will make sure someone will always take care of them.

Talking to teenagers

  • Tell your teens the type of cancer you have and what kind of treatment you will have.
  • Explain to your teens that it is not true that everyone who has cancer dies. Help them learn more about the type of cancer you have.
  • Be honest, and answer their questions as well as you can.
  • Let your teens know that it is normal to feel sad and angry. Learning that a parent has cancer may make it hard for teens to express their feelings.
  • Be prepared for changes in their behaviour. Some teens may act out or get into trouble because they are upset. Others may become clingy.
  • Give your teens plenty of chances to talk to you. Encourage them to talk to other adults and spend time with their friends.

Talking to adult children

  • Discuss your options with your adult children. Make sure they know your wishes for treatment.
  • Make the most of your time with them, and share your feelings.
  • Ask for their help if you need it. This may be difficult for you, especially when you have been their primary support.

Dealing with changes in your family

  • Be prepared for role changes in your family.
    • The head of the household may become more dependent on other family members. Parents may look to their children for support.
    • Some family members may need to work outside the home or work different hours to deal with the changing needs of the household.
    • Young children may suddenly begin to act younger out of stress. This is their way of dealing with what has changed in their family.
    • Some teens may rebel and spend more time away from home. Others may take on new duties to help the family.
    • Some older children may need extra support.
    • Some children may find it hard to cope despite your help. If your children are having problems, you may want to find a counsellor or support group to help them.

When should you call for help?

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if you have any problems.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.