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Sibling with cancer: emotions your student might go through

Brothers and sisters of cancer patients can have a difficult time as well. They may experience feelings of guilt, rejection, fear, depression, or anxiety.

They may react by developing problems (academic or behavioural) or physical symptoms such as stomach pain or headaches.

As with the child with cancer, it is important to note that, although these reactions are “normal” they can impede a student’s progress and efforts should be made to help them cope in a less negative or harmful way.

Common reactions and problems which brothers and sisters may display:

Worrying about their sick sibling

The entire family will be devastated by a diagnosis of cancer and brothers and sisters often get information about their sick sibling second or third hand, from grandparents or other relatives who are caring for them while parents are at the hospital. This limits the quality and quantity of their information and often leads to misconceptions about the nature of the illness and the treatments.

Feeling sad

Diagnosis of cancer within the family is an extremely stressful event that changes the nature of the family. Children often mirror the level of anxiety shown by other family members, including parents. Peers may need more information to understand what their friends are going through.

Feeling guilty

Some children will feel that they should have been the one to get sick, or that they somehow caused the illness. Open discussion can often alleviate misconceptions.

Feeling jealous and left out

The cancer patient gets a lot of attention from the family, community and hospital staff. Parents often have to leave other children at home or with friends/relatives while they care for the sick child. Treatment days become “special” outings for the parent and the cancer patient. School/ECC can help brothers and sisters by making them feel important too. A little extra can go a long way.

Feeling angry

As treatment progresses and the cancer patient looks and acts “healthy”, brothers and sisters can resent the continued attention given to the patient. Parents often complain of behavioural problems with siblings as treatment continues.

Worrying about what is going on at the hospital

Often inattention in class may be a result of preoccupation with what is going on at the hospital. On a “bad” treatment day the cancer patient may come home quite ill and/ or the parent could be quite upset. If blood counts are low, there is always the possibility the patient will stay in hospital and the parent may not be home. Also, if the patient is sick in hospital, brothers and sisters often admit to worrying about the possibility of death.

Worrying that other family members (particularly parents) might get cancer

Despite the availability to the community of accurate information and educational resources regarding cancer, a surprising number of misconceptions still exist. Cancer is not contagious and does not necessarily end in death.

In fact many childhood cancer patients are given excellent prognoses. Also the likelihood that other family members will suffer from cancer is low.

Missing parents

Caring for a sick child takes time and energy, whether they are at home or in hospital. Unfortunately this means that well brothers and sisters often have to “make do” until the “crisis” is over. This may mean lack of emotional support or no one to help with homework etc. As treatment for childhood cancer may continue for up to two to three years it can have a major effect on the siblings.

Worrying about parents

It is difficult to see anyone that you love upset by something that no one can control. Often older brothers and sisters feel the need to support parents during the “crisis” times, or simply feel “alone” because they don’t want to worry their parents. They often feel pressure to be good all the time or to take on much more household responsibility than is normal for their age. As a result of their parent’s energy being taken up by the sick child, siblings may have to rely on friends and teachers for support.

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