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Faith, kids & cancer

Author: Laurie Wertich

It’s no secret that cancer is a family affair. A diagnosis presents an enormous challenge to the entire family—emotionally and logistically. When children are involved, a family’s journey takes on an additional dimension that presents a unique set of challenges.

Recent research indicates that 18 percent of newly diagnosed cancer patients are parents of one or more kids under the age of 18. Translation: approximately 2.85 million children are living with a parent who is currently battling or has survived cancer.1 The implications for these families are huge—and it’s not just about getting the laundry done, the meals cooked, and the kids dropped off at soccer practice. Those are the details. The real issue is bigger than that. How do we help kids cope with cancer and all of the related emotional implications?

According to Reverend Wendell Scanterbury, chaplain at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA ) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the first step is to acknowledge that a diagnosis— though never a welcome change—can be a valuable teaching tool as we help our children learn to navigate life. “We always want to shelter and protect our kids, but part of our responsibility as parents is to prepare our children for the journey of life,” Rev. Scanterbury says. “Cancer is one of the challenges that life brings, and we have to equip them to handle it. It’s important to equip them with effective weapons in the battle against cancer, and one of the most important weapons is faith.”

Start with the truth, follow with faith

According to Rev. Scanterbury, a family’s faith can provide real support and guidance in communicating with children about cancer. Though it can be difficult, he advocates starting the conversation about a parent’s diagnosis with the truth that moves forward into a real walk of faith in both expression and action. “Questions can be hard, but it’s important not to avoid them or scoot around them,” he warns. He suggests being as honest as possible about the facts of the diagnosis, speaking to kids at their level, and embedding everything in the context of faith.

For example, parents could explain to their child that Mommy is sick and that it could be serious, and then they could follow those facts with something like, “We are trusting in God to give us strength. Remember what Paul says in the scriptures, ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’”

This level of honesty is critical, according to Rev. Scanterbury, because kids are quite perceptive anyway. “We have to be unafraid to share with them so that we can band together and talk,” he says. “We don’t want them to keep it inside.” Faith in Action: Breanna Holmes Breanna Holmes is a 22-year-old college student at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Her mother has been battling cancer off and on for the past nine years, but Breanna says she didn’t fully understand the gravity of her mom’s illness until she left for college at age 18 because her parents, hoping to keep her childhood as normal as possible, did not initially share details of her mother’s diagnosis.

Though Breanna knows that her parents’ choice to shelter her from the reality of her mother’s illness was made with her best interests at heart, she regrets not knowing earlier. “If I could go back, I would want my parents to tell me,” she says. “Then I might not be as shocked and devastated as I am now because I’m finally dealing with the reality of the situation.” She urges other parents to consider including their children from the beginning. “It’s a tough situation because I know parents want to protect their children, but I say be open and up front and take the child on this journey with you.”

Now that she’s older, Breanna shares the journey with her parents, drawing on her firm foundation of faith every step of the way. “I grew up in the church, and praying for myself and others has always been a major part of my life,” she explains.

It is this faith that sustains her now as she watches from the sidelines while her mom copes with cancer. “All I have is my faith in God,” she insists. “That’s where my strength comes from. Who else do you have to talk to in the middle of the night but God?” Her faith also brings her a calm sense of clarity: “No matter what, everything is going to be okay because God’s will is done.” Bolstering her faith and putting her own challenges into perspective is her mom’s courage, Breanna says. “She wants to work, to finish tilling the garden, and to keep fundraising at the church. If she can do all of that, there is nothing for me to complain about.”

Faith in action: The Mikell family

When Troy Mikell was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma in 2004, his kids, Chelsi and Christopher, were ages two and seven. By 2006 Troy had stage IV metastatic cancer and had started undergoing treatment. Tami, his wife, says their faith in God is what sustained the entire family through Troy’s illness. “Troy and I were faithful and strong and that spilled over to the kids,” she says. “We didn’t give them any doubt.” Tami says that both she and Troy were inspired by the faith they witnessed in their kids, especially in Chelsi, who was so young at the time. Tami says that Chelsi simply believed that whatever you need, you just ask Jesus for it and you’re going to get it. Her brother, Christopher, carried a strong, quiet faith, his mom says, and would often pray for his dad in private.

Tami knows that the family’s faith was bolstered by their larger faith family, which helped the kids cope with their dad’s cancer. “We have a strong church and church family. Every time we went to church, they would witness people praying for Troy and the family,” she explains. “Then these same people would reiterate to them that their dad was going to be fine. A lot of people were constantly reassuring them and loving them. That was great because they were hearing it from everyone.”

Five years later Troy is cancer-free, and the family remains faithful. “I think the kids are stronger and they can face adversity more easily,” Tami says of their experience with cancer. “We remind them that anything is possible with God because look what he has done with Dad.”

No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.

Reference

  1. Weaver KE, Rowland JH, Alfano CM, McNeel TS. Parental cancer and the family: a population-based estimate of the number of US cancer survivors residing with their minor children. Cancer. 2010;116(18): 4395—401.
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