Emotional Trauma and Cancer: Emotional Effects of Cancer on the Family and Siblings

Young child distressed at school due to the effects of childhood cancer on siblings

According to The Pediatric Cancer Survivors publication, The three common themes of siblings of childhood cancer include changing lives, intense feelings, and unmet needs. It’s important to remember that regardless of who falls ill, cancer affects each family member. Furthermore, each family member has their own way of processing and displaying their emotions when life is flipped upside down. 

Parents and siblings alike have a huge impact on each other as they develop their own sense of self. This is why the change in routine, family dynamics, and shift in parental attention causes such distress. The feeling of a lack of support and the uncertainty of what the future holds  can lead to the sibling feeling unworthy, guilty, angry, sadness, and rejection. In addition, while they observe their sibling’s suffering, they often feel unable to voice their fears and emotions.  Studies have shown strained bonds between family members actually negatively affect the sick child’s HRQoL (Health-Related Quality of Life) and ability to adjust to treatments. Showing just how critical family is to children during vulnerable and uncertain times.

Common Range of Emotions that Siblings May Feel

From being afraid of what the future holds to feeling left in the dark about their sibling’s  condition, the emotional impact on siblings creates a wide range of emotions. Expressing those feelings in a healthy manner is important for parents to encourage. Often children are uneasy about sharing their feelings with their parents. They feel like the parents are stressed enough concerning the sick sibling or that it’s wrong to be feeling these emotions. This is why parents need to recognize and be aware of these feelings their children are struggling with.

Feelings of Fear/Anxiety 

  • About causing the brother or sister to become sick
  • About lack of knowledge about cancer, thinking they can catch cancer and fall sick too
  • About the future, what’s going to happen to the family unit later
  • About losing their sibling 

Feelings of Anger/Jealousy 

  • About changes, such as additional chores, restricted activities, and increased demand of independence from parents
  • About the dedicated focus of parents on the sick sibling
  • About having to go to school or staying with other family members while the sick sibling doesn’t

Feelings of Loneliness 

  • About being left out or left behind, especially if left with a family member while parents visit the hospital or meet with the doctor
  • About the loss of a playmate when the sibling isn’t around or able to play like they used to
  • About the loss of friends or the lack of ability to relate to their friends anymore
  • About the sense that nobody seems to care about how they are doing

Feelings of Sadness

  • About how their parents and sibling must be feeling
  • About how their life used to be 
  • About how their family isn’t like other families anymore

Feelings of Embarrassment 

  • About telling their friends or teachers about what’s happening at home
  • About how their family isn’t like other families anymore
  • About physical changes in their sibling

Feelings of Guilt

  • About why this happened to their sibling and not to themselves
  • About causing the brother or sister to become sick
  • About feeling any of the above emotions even though the sibling is sick
  • About having trouble connecting with their sibling, being unsure of what to say or do to help

Forming a Support System for Siblings

While it is perfectly normal to be experiencing any of these emotions, children with a strong family support system can alleviate or overcome these feelings. As families support each other, they learn to maintain unity from being present throughout treatments and recovery. Furthermore as the effects of childhood cancer affect each child differently, some children bond even stronger with their family members. Nonetheless, there is no right or wrong way that a sibling should be feeling. Helping siblings share their emotions can help them alot. Just be sure to care for yourself as well! Next time with Syndi Smiles, we’ll share some useful tips about how to help siblings express their emotions in addition to how to make the transition to this new routine easier.