Helping Kids Cope with Cancer in the Family

My children loved watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood on TV and if I’m honest, his quiet deliberate way of talking about life had a calming effect on me, too. The former Presbyterian pastor’s warm smile, compassionate heart and friendly puppets were convincing to viewers that he, indeed, did “like you just the way you are.”

​But in June of 1990, when I was 36 and our daughters 8, 10 and 12 were no longer Mister Rogers’ fans, it was not “a beautiful day in the neighborhood” as cancer knocked on (crashed through?!) our family’s door. At the time I didn’t know any other young moms facing cancer and there were no published books for such parents. My husband and I fumbled along, desperately wishing we could shield our little girls from this pain. But we soon discovered that really wasn’t practical and more importantly, it wasn’t the best plan.

​It’s not easy for a child trying to cope with cancer in the family – whether it’s an adult relative with the disease or the child confronting his/her own diagnosis. But as Fred Rogers once said “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.” So cancer in the family definitely offers an opportunity to become a hero to the child in your life.

​Matt, one of our church’s pastors, and his wife Carrie have been coping with cancer in the family since December 2009, when their oldest child, Ian, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia at the age of 3 ½ .

​Matt vividly recalls the moment the doctor gave them the diagnosis.

​“Acute leukemia were not the words we expected to hear,” Matt says. “In my mind, I equated that (diagnosis) with death and I thought I was going to lose my son.”

​Later that night after the frightened couple put Ian and younger brother Nathan, 1 ½, to bed they joined hands and “told God we fully gave Ian to Him,” Carrie recalls.

​“We prayed for our marriage to be able to withstand the stress that was about to come upon us,” she adds.

​Ian underwent six phases of aggressive chemotherapy over more than three years and was in and out of the hospital for treatment and its debilitating side effects. The good news is the cancer went quickly into remission and has remained there since.
​I recently asked Carrie and Matt how they helped their young family, which now includes a daughter, Quinn, see God at work in the midst of this trial.

​“We kept prayer at the forefront of every day of the journey,” Carrie says. “We did not assume any guarantees for Ian’s life to be spared, but celebrated all the big and small milestones along the way, giving the Lord the credit for it all.

​“We openly discussed our fears and when we felt alone and even distant from God,” Carrie explains. “We also served in our ‘cancer community’ by showing God’s love in practical ways to others who were suffering, too.”

​A few weeks ago, 9-year-old Ian and his family celebrated his third cancer-free anniversary, two shy of the mark when doctors will declare him cured.

​“We were loading up the van to go out to eat as a family,” Carrie recalls. “I noticed Ian sitting there with his eyes closed and hands folded. I wasn’t sure if he was praying, so I asked him if he was OK.

​“Yes,” was the young survivor’s reply. “I was just thanking God that I’m still cancer-free.”

​Every year nearly 16,000 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer and worldwide about a quarter of a million kids get that bad news. That’s a new child diagnosed with cancer every three minutes.

​Statistics are not compiled for how many parents of minor children get cancer, but about 3.2 million of the U.S. adults diagnosed annually are ages 21-55 and therefore likely to still have kids at home. And that’s not even counting all of those cancer patients with young grandchildren.

​However you add it up, there are millions of families facing cancer with children.

​So how can you best help the children in your life? Here are my recommendations written in an A- B-C style in honor of my hero, Mister Rogers:

Allow your feelings to be seen—even the sad ones. Obviously, it’s our job to help our children with their feelings, not vice versa, but if you want them to see how God is walking with you, you’ll need to share your struggles at times. It’s OK for children to know that sometimes we are afraid or angry or worried because then we can show them how a Christ-follower seeks God’s help with those feelings.

Be age-appropriately honest. Don’t tell all the statistics, but do use the word “cancer.” If you don’t, it may seem as if the word is too scary to even utter. It isn’t. Take away some of its supposed power by naming it as simply another illness. Sometimes when we don’t tell children the difficult truth, they imagine something even worse.

Create ways kids can give of themselves. Let them make cards or little gifts for the one facing cancer. Encourage them to pray specifically for that person every day. If the child is the one with cancer, follow Ian’s family’s lead and minister to others going through hard times. It’s so much easier to get our minds off our own troubles when we reach out to others.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. We never told our girls “Mommy will be fine” because there was no such guarantee. We did promise them that we will consult with the top cancer and rare disease specialists in the US to do everything they could to make me well, I would do everything to get well and that we expected I would become well.

Empower them by praying for them and with them—as in out loud and not just at mealtimes. Show them how to trust God even when we don’t like our situation. Don’t promise them that the one with cancer will be healed, but promise them that the One who created that person loves him/her with an everlasting love and will never leave them.

​Facing cancer with children can be a wonderful first-hand lesson of the supernatural power of God in our lives. Help guide them to the path of peace as the Lord guides you there, too. The positive impact of this journey can be seen for generations to come.

“Our children will serve Him;
future generations will hear the story of how the Lord rescued us.
They will tell the generations to come
of the righteousness of the Lord,
of what He has done.” (Psalm 22:30-31 The Voice)

“He will listen to the prayers of the destitute.
He will not reject their pleas.
Let this be recorded for future generations,
so that a people not yet born will praise the Lord.” (Psalm 102:17-18 NLT)

Note: This article is adapted from the book Peace in the Face of Cancer copyright 2017 by Lynn Eib and published by Tyndale Momentum.

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