10 Tips for Coping When Your Parent Has Cancer


When your parent receives a cancer diagnosis, the news may come as a complete shock, even if there have been subtle and tell-tale signs all along. Life as you know it has now changed for the worse in some ways and made better in others. You might be wondering, “How can life possibly get better after getting such devastating news?”

Jump ahead to these sections:

Getting diagnosed with cancer may not be the death sentence it used to be. Medical advancements have made it possible to survive and thrive during and after treatment. Learning how to cope with a parent with cancer has taken on a different meaning from what it used to be even a few short years ago.

While it will take some adjusting, you can work on how to remain steadfast as you support someone with cancer.

Tips for Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis

Everyone’s diagnosis is different, and for that reason, some news may be easier to digest than others. You’ll likely need to learn to navigate your way through all of the upcoming disruptions to your life.

Some of those changes might be easily welcomed, like the added time spent with your loved one, but some of them may cause some discomfort and unease. It can be hard to see your loved one in pain, or having to care for them and clean up anything that may be associated with the adverse effects of treatment. 

Through it all, it's important to maintain hope while exploring the different treatments available, their success rates, and any alternative treatments that can be used in tandem with the oncologist's treatment plan. 

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1. Speak calmly

One of the first things to keep in mind is that your words and actions can have a lasting effect. Try and remain calm whenever having any illness-related talks. Understand that this can be a very stressful time for your parent, and they may be internalizing many of their thoughts and fears over their diagnosis.

Being mindful of how and what to say when someone’s stressed is an important skill you’ll utilize time and again as you go through this together. Be considerate of your parent’s concerns outside of the immediate medical conclusions and proposed treatment schedules. They may be thinking about things related to how much longer they have to live, did they live a fulfilling life, and if there any things left to do on their bucket list.

While they may be considering these things, try and keep up with what the doctors are saying and recommending so that you can discuss it again at a later time.

2. Ask questions

Learning the most you can about your parent’s diagnosis and treatment involves asking lots of questions. You'll want to know and understand the medical team's diagnosis, care, and treatment plan. On top of that, you’ll likely need to parse and support your parent's thoughts on everything from diagnosis, to treatment, to expectations of outcome.

Some of the essential questions you'll want you or your parent to ask are:

  • What is the key information needed to help me make a decision regarding my treatment plan?
  • What information are you relying on to help you select the recommendations you’ll be making concerning my treatment?
  • What is a realistic outcome considering the treatment options available?

In addition, here are some questions to ask your parent to keep in mind.

  • How are you feeling?
  • Did the news come to you as a shock, or is it something you’ve been contemplating for a while now?
  • How do you foresee your treatment and care?
  • What type of help do you need from me?
  • Are you comfortable with me giving you personal care or would you rather have a hired nurse come to your home to assist with activities of daily living?

3. Attend appointments

Try to attend as many appointments with your parent as possible. They may want to have your love, support, and encouragement as they go through this difficult time. Another reason is to be on-hand to take notes and absorb as many details that the doctor is discussing with them.

It helps everyone in the end, so that nothing is lost or misunderstood in what was said or recommended. Being there allows you to ask questions and seek clarification of things that you may be unfamiliar with or unsure of. 

Tips for Coping With a Terminal Cancer Diagnosis

When the diagnosis is terminal, you’ll want to start exploring ways in which to cope with a dying parent. You’ll most likely notice a significant shift in your parent’s mood and demeanor once they receive a terminal cancer diagnosis.

The treatment methods and potential cancer cures may no longer mean the same thing to them. It’s important to discuss with their medical team the options that are left for treatment, comfort, and end-of-life care. 

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4. Spend quality time

One of the greatest gifts for cancer patients is the gift of time. When someone is diagnosed with any terminal condition, they know and understand that their time is limited, and their number of days left to live is coming to a close.

Take this time to not only visit often but to have meaningful end-of-life conversations. Consider listening closely to what your parent has to say and asking any questions that might help them to tie any loose ends.

5. Discuss end-of-life planning

If your parent has yet to have this discussion with you, now is the time to bring up end-of-life planning in your discussions. As difficult as it may be for you to broach the subject, force yourself to sit down to discuss all of the end-of-life matters needing to be addressed.

Some of the things you’ll need to know are:

  • How would they like their end-of-life care to go?
    • Do they envision dying at home or in a clinical setting?
    • Do they want hospice or palliative care?
  • Do they have a medical directive in place?
    • If so, who is named as their agent to make healthcare decisions?
    • If not, are they open to setting one in place now?
  • What are their thoughts regarding comfort care?
    • Are they opposed to getting pain meds administered even if it shortens their time left?
    • Is comfort more important to them than living longer?
  • Do they have a will in place?
    • If so, where can you find a copy?
    • If not, why did they choose not to have one in place?
  • Have they made funeral arrangements?
    • If so, where did they make those plans?
    • Are they wanting a traditional burial or cremation?

You can read our full guide on how to talk to your parents about end-of-life planning.

6. Offer closure

An important aspect of the dying process is finding peace and closure with the way you’ve lived your life. This also holds true for your parent and the relationships with those who’ve come in and out of their life. It may include the people who they've considered to be great friends, lovers, family, and sometimes even their worst enemy. 

Making amends at the end of life brings closure and a certain peacefulness. You may want to discuss any lingering matters with your parent that will help heal their relationships or with whom they may feel the need for closure. 

How to Help a Loved One Cope With a Family Member’s Cancer Diagnosis

After a cancer diagnosis, the impact on one's family is challenging to estimate, as is the individual toll it has on your loved ones. For your loved one, it can mean coping with the fear of losing a loved one and dealing with added stress and anxiety of having to care for their loved one during their treatments. Serious diagnoses can alter an entire family's dynamic and how they interact with one another as they face the fear of the unknown in the coming days and weeks. Here are some ways you can support a loved one during this time.

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7. Encourage them to talk

Talking about what they’re going through, what they’re feeling, and how their family member’s cancer diagnosis affects them is a great way to help your loved one cope through this challenging time. If you think you might not be the best person to talk to about these things, help your loved one connect with a support group either locally or online.

Group therapy sessions may also offer a way for your loved one to connect with others going through similar circumstances at home. Here they can discuss their deeper feelings and emotions without the fear of being judged or shamed. 

8. Schedule self-care

Individuals providing care to a family member with cancer need to take regularly scheduled time off for self-care. Scheduling time off for themselves is an essential part of coping with grief after a loved one's been diagnosed with cancer. Self-care is a way to help the caregiver survive through the challenges of everyday life of caring for a loved one with cancer.

It involves more than taking breaks and getting enough sleep. Self-care means different things for each person but may include identifying the things that make the caregiver feel nourished and recharged, like going to the gym or spa, reading a book, or going out to lunch with a friend. 

9. Offer respite care

Respite care differs from self-care in the sense that respite care provides short-term relief from caretaking duties. Time off can be for a few short hours, a few days or weeks, giving the caregiver the needed break to attend to things outside their usual caregiving duties. Respite care may include:

  • Taking time off to spend with their families.
  • Taking care of things at home.
  • Going on vacation.

You can either offer to do the respite caregiving yourself or hire out a professional caregiver to step in to do the work. You can contract professional caregivers through local home healthcare agencies.

10. Identify duties to outsource

You can help your loved one cope with their family member's cancer diagnosis by discovering ways to ease their burden. Together you can identify the things they can outsource to others to make things easier for them at home.

If your loved one is facing the added pressure of caring for their family member, help them organize a host of friends and family to volunteer with tasks. Together all of you can help with the household chores, yard maintenance, and pet care for a few hours each week. Other ways you can help are by offering to babysit, cook meals, and do a few loads of laundry each week.

Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis 

Try and remain hopeful even in the midst of a cancer diagnosis. Relying on your parent’s medical team to provide the best treatment and care possible begins with your parent’s direct and informed involvement.

  1. “The Essential Questions” (2013). National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. canceradvocacy.org

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