Tips for coping with day-to-day life

Every family is different. Many factors will affect how your children respond to the day-to-day changes cancer can bring. Sharing your feelings with your children is one way to cope. It helps them learn that it’s okay to show their feelings.

Your normal routine may be disrupted. Young children often depend on routine, so explain any new plans such as who will be looking after them or picking them up. Letting teenagers help out can make them feel involved, but try to make sure they don’t take on too much. Being consistent and sticking to your usual family rules where possible can also help.

Make sure you have quality time with your family when you are in hospital and at home. Try switching off your phone at mealtimes or asking people to text rather than phone at certain times of the day. And don’t be afraid to accept offers of help. Other parents, or trusted friends or relatives, may be willing to lend a hand with things you usually do. This can free up extra time with your children.

Showing your feelings to children and teenagers

You and your children are unique. How you all respond to the situation will depend on different factors, including the way your family normally deals with feelings.

Some parents worry about showing their feelings or crying in front of their children. But there are good reasons to show how you feel. Hiding or bottling up your feelings also takes up energy and can make you feel even more anxious. We have more information about the emotional effects of cancer that you may find helpful. Showing your feelings can make it easier for your child to show theirs – it’s like giving them permission to do the same.

Children may need to be shielded from strong outbursts of emotion, such as arguments between adults. But it’s okay to cry in front of them sometimes, or to tell them you’re fed-up or angry about your illness.

Let them know that crying helps you feel better and there may be times when they’ll need to do the same. They shouldn’t think crying is babyish, or that they have to be strong. Explain that feelings like sadness and anger are normal and it’s okay to show these. This helps your children accept these feelings as normal, rather than be frightened of them or feel that it’s wrong to have them.

Always let your children know how much you love them through words, hugs and kisses. Sometimes your children may feel resentful about not getting enough of your attention. Or you may feel irritated by them or lose your temper. Don’t be hard on yourself. The demands of children can be difficult to manage at the best of times. Your reactions may be quite normal or heightened because you are under a lot of stress.

Talk this over with your partner or family to try to make sure you’re getting enough support and time out to help you cope. This can stop things at home becoming too tense.

If you have a teenager, remember that every teenager will react differently to a situation. You might think that they will find it hard to see you cry or hear about how you are feeling. But it’s important to be honest about your feelings, as it will help them trust you. It may also make them feel they can be honest about their own feelings. This trust will make it easier for you to find out if they are coping.

There is a difficult balance between protecting them and letting them be kids, and being honest with them.


Dealing with changes to family life

It can help if you try to keep family life as normal and stable as possible for the children. This isn’t easy, but there are things you can do that may make it easier.

Changes in routines

Disruptions and changes in routine are to be expected, but it’s important your children know how their day-to-day routines are going to be affected. Children, especially younger ones, like and depend on routine – it helps them feel safe. Tell them about changes in advance and make sure they always know:

  • who’s looking after them when you’re not there
  • who will pick them up from college, school or nursery
  • who’s taking them to activities such as swimming lessons
  • any other changes to their normal routine.

Sometimes, even with planning, arrangements have to change at short notice. Try to show your children that things can also be flexible, and involve them as much as you can in any new plans.

Teenagers are often keen to help out when someone in their family is ill. This could mean anything from doing the washing-up to going with the person to appointments.

Allowing teenagers to help in these ways can have many benefits, for you and for them. They may learn new skills and feel more mature. At the same time, it’s important to make sure they don’t try to take on too much. Let them know that while you might need their help, they should also carry on focusing on their schoolwork and doing things they enjoy, such as seeing their friends.

In some families, teenagers won’t need to do any more than they usually would. In others, they may have more responsibilities to take on. Some teenagers become carers when a family member has cancer. A carer is someone who provides unpaid support to a family member or friend who could not manage without this help.

We have more information for young carers aged 12 to 18.

Getting help

Ask people to look after your children or take over some of the things you usually do. Choose people who your children feel safe, comfortable and familiar with. Younger children need consistency, so if possible it’s a good idea to have the same person helping.

  • Don’t be reluctant to accept offers of help, especially when it frees you up to spend time with your children.
  • Other parents are often willing to help by looking after the children after school or nursery.
  • Ask a relative or close friend to coordinate the help that’s been offered. A rota system can often be worked out, and you can use a calendar or chart to keep track of who’s helping when.
  • Get extra help with childcare if you need it. We have more information about help with childcare.

Keeping to the usual limits

Even when family life is going well, it’s often hard to be consistent and to set rules and limits for your children. It’s especially hard when you’re coping with cancer and are worried about your children’s reactions to your illness. Children and teenagers need love and support, but they also need the usual discipline to help them feel secure. It’s important to try to keep to your usual family rules. If you’re worried about your child’s behaviour and need support, help is available.

Have family time

Life can often be busy when you’re coping with cancer. You may:

  • be having treatment as an outpatient
  • need short stays in hospital
  • be coping with side effects or symptoms at home.

All this can disrupt family life and make it difficult to have enough quality time with your children.

It’s important to have some uninterrupted time with your family.

If possible, ask people to contact you by text or email rather than by phone. People often want to help or let you know they’re thinking of you. But they don’t usually expect you to reply, so don’t feel you have to. You could also switch your phone off at mealtimes.

In the information below we’ve listed some ways you can spend time with your family at home, even when you don’t have much energy.

Spending time together in hospital

You may be worried that seeing you in hospital will be too stressful for your children. But being separated from you may cause them more anxiety. Ask your children if they’d like to visit you and go with what they want.

At first it may be easier for them to see you in a visitor’s or day room, or there may be a canteen or cafe you can take them to.

You’ll need to be aware of what your child may see in hospital, especially if there are very unwell people being cared for nearby. For younger children, keep visits fairly short (up to 15 minutes) and remember that older children may want some time alone with you.

Here are some other ideas for how you can best prepare your children for a hospital visit:

  • Make sure they’re prepared for what they are likely to see and explain things to them. For example, tell them what a drip is, what it looks like and what it’s for.
  • Tell them about the different people who are there to help you. Show them things like the call button, so they feel more secure about you being looked after.
  • Encourage older children and teenagers to take along a book, handheld games console, tablet or laptop. Encourage younger children to take a toy or colouring book.
  • Make sure you’ve got snacks and things you can do together, such as a pack of cards or a book of word games.
  • If they’re overwhelmed or tired, ask the adult who’s with them to take them home.

Keeping in touch with your children while you’re in hospital is also important:

  • Have a regular time to call home, or when they can call or text you.
  • Make sure they have a photo of you while you’re away if they’d like one.
  • Leave notes or a small gift for them to find when you’re in hospital.
  • If you have internet access in hospital, send them an email or speak with them over an online video chat service such as Skype™ or FaceTime.
  • Leave them a voicemail, or send a card or letter.
  • Set up a website or blog that you can use to keep them updated.
  • If they’re younger, read a story with them over the phone or ask them to send you a drawing they’ve done.

Teenagers may want to come along to treatment sessions. You should encourage them to do this if they want to, and if the treatments aren’t in school time. It can help them understand the treatment process and ask any questions they have. It may be reassuring for them to have a better idea of how your treatment works.

I didn’t want my son seeing me in hospital. I took him along when I was booking in so he’d know where I would be for the next few days.


Spending time together at home

Here are some ideas for things you can do together when you want to spend time with your children, even if you don’t have much energy.

  • Watch TV or DVDs together.
  • Play cards, board games or computer games.
  • Listen to music together.
  • Look through family photos and create a photo album together.
  • Allow them to help out by bringing you a drink or a book, or by tidying up.
  • On days when you’re feeling better, save energy for the things you enjoy doing as a family. It doesn’t have to be expensive or out of the ordinary. Your children will appreciate that you are spending time with them.
  • Getting out for some fresh air can be good for everyone. Exercise, even short walks in the park, can help increase your energy levels and reduce stress. It’s great for your children and also helps them let off steam.
  • Set aside some time for the children to show you what they’ve been doing at school or other activities they’ve been involved in. 
  • If you feel well enough, plan something to do with your child in the near future. This may make them feel like things will get easier soon.

These tips may be useful if your children are younger:

  • Use art materials and things like Play-Doh® together. Drawing pictures about family life can help children express their feelings. 
  • Read and write stories together. Writing a story about you becoming ill can help your children show how they feel. It may also reveal any misunderstandings they have.

Looking after yourself

Whatever your situation, taking care of yourself and getting enough support will help you cope. In the information below, there are some suggestions about how you can do this.

Getting enough rest is important, as your body uses up more energy than usual when you’re coping with treatment or stress, or both. Rest gives your body time to recover. Try to get enough sleep and pace yourself so you don’t overdo things.

Even if you don’t feel like it, try to eat healthily. This gives you more energy to feel better and improves your general health. Try to eat:

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • more high-fibre foods, such as wholegrain bread and pasta, beans and oatmeal
  • more protein, like chicken and fish or nuts and fruits if you are vegetarian.
  • less red and processed meat
  • less saturated fats, like pastries, samosas, cakes and cheese.

We have more detailed information about exercise and eating well after cancer treatment.

It’s good to be physically active as well. Even short walks can sometimes help you feel less stressed and sleep better. It’s great for the children as well.

Getting support

There’s lots of support available to you and your family. It’s important to ask for help or to talk to someone, like your GP, if you feel you’re not getting enough support.

Health professionals

If you’re the person with cancer, your cancer specialist and specialist nurse can offer support and advice. You can also talk to your GP if you need emotional support, whether you’re the person with cancer or a relative. Occasionally people need more advice and support, and sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone who’s not directly involved. Your specialist or GP can usually refer you to a counsellor, social worker or psychologist who can help.

Our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00 can tell you more about counselling and can let you know about services in your area.

Social workers at the hospital may be able to:

  • help you with finances
  • find suitable childcare
  • offer emotional support.

We have more information about help with childcare.

Support groups

Self-help and support groups offer a chance to talk to other people who may be in a similar situation and facing the same challenges as you. Joining a group can be helpful if you live alone, or don’t feel able to talk about your feelings with people around you. The first meeting is usually the hardest one. Not everyone finds talking in a group easy, so it might not be for you. Try going along to see what the group is like before you decide.

We have information about cancer support groups across the UK. Or you can call us on 0808 808 00 00.

Online support

Many people find support on the internet. There are online support groups, social networking sites, forums, chat rooms and blogs for people affected by cancer. You can use these to share your experiences, ask questions, and get and give advice based on your experience. Our online community is a social networking site where you can chat to people, blog your journey, make friends and join support groups.

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