Oncologist-approved cancer information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology
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Parenting While Caring for a Parent With Cancer

Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: Parenting and Caring for Parents With Cancer, adapted from this feature.

If you are parenting young children while caring for a parent with cancer, you know firsthand the practical and emotional challenges. Here are a few tips to help you juggle your responsibilities and reduce your risk of burnout:

Simplify. Make a list of your obligations and activities, dividing the tasks into those you must do and those that can wait. Prioritize the activities that are most meaningful to your children. Eliminate the ones that you can, and delegate tasks (such as laundry, cooking, and cleaning) to others when possible. Ask your older children to help you choose which activities are important to them.

Organize. Create an organization system that works for you and that enables other people to support you and your family. Create a small portable file with telephone numbers for health care professionals, your local pharmacy and hospital, school teachers, and daycare providers, as well as numbers of relatives, friends, and neighbors who can help in an emergency. In addition, file copies of health insurance cards and legal documents you may need to access quickly, such as your parent's Power of Attorney. It can also help to use a calendar to keep track of all appointments and commitments for you, your children, your partner or spouse, and your parent. Find more tips for organizing care.

Ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask for assistance. Most friends and relatives are willing to help, particularly when given specific suggestions. Some people feel uncomfortable or guilty about not being able to do it all; however, you are helping your children, your spouse, and your parent by delegating tasks so that you can spend more quality time with them and keep yourself healthy. You may want to assign a “captain of kindnesses,” a close friend or family member who will be the contact person for others who would like to be helpful. He or she can both organize needed assistance and serve as a buffer against unwelcome intrusions in your parenting or family time.

Learn more about resources for assistance with caregiving responsibilities.

Tips for caring for your children

Create a safe, secure environment for your children by surrounding them with people who love them, giving them honest and clear information, and maintaining a routine they can count on. Some additional tips include the following:

  • Maintain a predictable schedule and routine as often as possible. Most children find comfort in structure.
  • Make regular times each day to give your children your undivided attention; even just 10 to 15 minutes can make a big difference to your child.
  • Give your children age-appropriate explanations about your parent's illness, and encourage them to ask questions. Answer their questions honestly, and do not promise that things will be okay if they may not. Children give their trust freely, but it is difficult to regain once lost. If you are not sure whether your parent's treatment will be successful, you can say, “I'm not sure whether the chemotherapy will keep the cancer from growing. The doctors are following Grandpa closely, and we are hopeful. When he has his tests, I will let you know what they show.” Learn more about talking with your children about cancer.
  • Let your children know that nothing they did caused the cancer. Also, let them know it is normal for people who care about a family member who has cancer to be worried and sad sometimes.
  • Tell the daycare, nursery school, and parents of your children's friends about your parent's illness, providing updates when necessary. You may want to write a letter or send an e-mail, so adults who may interact with your children will have consistent, accurate information. Many parents find it helpful to guide other adults in how to talk optimistically with their children.
  • Encourage your children to tell you if they have heard anything about cancer that they don't understand. Children often hear things about cancer from friends or television, and they may encounter misinformation.
  • Give your children ways to express their feelings and worries, such as encouraging them to write a story or draw a picture or play with their toys.
  • Enlist the help of neighborhood or school-based parent groups to help with carpooling, childcare, and keeping kids involved in afterschool activities.
  • Make emergency contingency care plans for childcare, and inform your children about these plans beforehand. For example, tell them, “Aunt Susan will stay with you at our house if I need to take care of Grandma,” or “Mrs. Jones will pick you up from school when I am taking Grandpa to the doctor.”

It also helps to remember that, although caring for a parent who has cancer while parenting young children can be challenging, it is a unique opportunity to model for your children how families take care of one another when someone is sick. It teaches your children the value of sacrificing for the benefit of another.

Tips for caring for your parent who has cancer

Talk with your parents about their needs and expectations upfront; then, set up a time to reevaluate how things are going at least once per month. If this is a difficult conversation for you, ask a health care professional, family member, or member of the clergy to facilitate. You may also want to consider taking the following steps:

  • Ask the cancer treatment center social worker, nurse, or doctor for referrals to resources in your community, such as transportation, home delivered meals, and home nursing care.
  • Find resources for respite care or a homemaker service to care for your parent. This can help your parent with basic household tasks while you are at work or caring for your children.
  • Request a home safety evaluation by a visiting nurse or occupational therapist; the provider will recommend devices and services to enhance your parent's safety and ability to function independently.
  • Ask family and friends to rotate caring for your parent on a regular basis or to help with childcare while you are caring for your parent. Learn more about sharing responsibilities with family members.
  • Make caregiving contingency plans so that a relative or friend can relieve you on short notice.
  • Use technology such as cell phones and e-mail to stay in touch when you're not available in person.

Tips for taking care of yourself

Taking care of yourself physically and emotionally is essential to healthy caregiving. Try to incorporate some of the suggestions below:

  • Use resources available through your employer, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
  • Take advantage of local caregiver support groups, as well as online support groups and message boards.
  • Make a balanced diet, regular sleep, and exercise a priority.
  • Plan periodic activities with family or friends that do not involve discussions or tasks related to cancer.
  • Allow yourself some time, even in small intervals, to rejuvenate in the ways that work for you. This may involve hobbies, writing in a journal, or daily quiet time.
  • Maintain supportive social contacts as often as possible, and create time for you and your spouse, partner, or friends to stay connected.

Learn more about how you can care for yourself while caregiving.

More Information


Being a Caregiver

Tips on Caregiving

Additional Resources

Family Caregiver Alliance: Practical Tools and Resources for Caregivers

National Cancer Institute: When Someone You Love is Being Treated for Cancer

Last Updated: February 23, 2011

© 2005-2014 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). All rights reserved worldwide.

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