Perhaps the biggest challenge living with cancer in the family is the chronic and persistent feeling of uncertainty that can permeate every layer of life. Some uncertainties center on your prognoisis itself will the treatment work? How long will it take to work? What if it comes back? Others mean you incur small daily inconveniences that you might never have worried about before, such as wondering whether there will be a parking space available close to the door of the clinic or whether you’ll have the energy today to make dinner for your family.

As great as your uncertainties are, it’s challenging in a different way for a child who may not fully understand what’s going on and why. They worry about what’s going to happen to you, as well as what’s going to happen to them, from big issues of the future to more immediate things like never knowing whether you’ll be able to drive them to visit their friends on a given day. They don’t get to talk to the doctors, and often aren’t knowledgeable enough to be able to do their own research, making you their primary channel for information and they may expect you to explain more than you know yourself.

In one of our education and support groups recently, the preteens and teens voiced their suspicions that their parents are holding out on them. They wanted to know, “How bad is it…for real?” What preteens and teens don’t often realize is that their parents don’t fully know “how bad” it is. How do you speak clearly about your cancer if you yourself can’t know what is going to happen? Living with cancer in the family means having to learn to live with a great deal of uncertainty, and it’s important to explain to a child that “I don’t know” doesn’t mean “I won’t tell you” but rather “I can’t tell you, because I don’t know either.”

It’s difficult but possible to create a family life that is stable even in an atmosphere of uncertainty. In her book After Cancer, cancer survivor, doctor, parent, and author, Wendy Harpham offers the analogy of a gymnast’s ability to learn to compete on the balance beam. “Most of you could walk the length of a six inch wide beam placed on the floor,” she writes. “With the ground just inches away, you would focus on the beam and maintain your balance easily. If this same beam were raised five feet above the ground, most of you would weave and waver, flapping your arms as you tried to maintain your balance before falling off to the side. The beam would be exactly the same, yet the distraction of the ground 5 feet below would cause you to lose touch with the beam and lose your balance. Gymnasts learn to focus on the beam, not the ground. With practice, they rarely fall. When they do fall, they get right back on the beam. You, as a cancer survivor, must learn to focus on your present life, not on the uncertainties and unknowns of the future. It is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced.” The gymnast, like the cancer patient, knows their abilities, knows that the beam is unstable its safety is uncertain but feels like they are well informed of how to deal with it and to go on in the face of uncertainty and possible negative consequences.

By Janice Haines and Missy Lundquist, Co-Directors, Facing Cancer Together Program.