Finding Stability

When a Parent Has Cancer: How Young Adult Caregivers Fit In

Young adult children can help a parent during cancer treatment without losing track of school or work.

When a parent has cancer, where do young adult children fit into the process? Of course a close family member’s cancer diagnosis is always stressful, but there’s a different type of pressure for a child who is finishing high school, college or is recently out of school. They are beginning a newly independent life, gaining the education and training necessary to make it on their own financially. A parent’s cancer diagnosis adds a lot of confusion, especially if that young adult takes on any caregiving roles.

The young adult can be conflicted about his or her role, and parents may have different ideas as well, as to how they want their children to be involved. How can young adults manage normalcy in their lives when a parent has cancer? Should they continue their education or work while remaining part of the caregiving process? Here are some ideas.

What Caregiving Looks Like at This Stage

Caregiving is more than driving the patient to treatments and taking care at home. It can mean running errands, coordinating treatment, offering comfort and being a good listener. Depending on the young adult’s age and role, it could mean talking to the doctors by phone or helping the parent coordinate local support in their absence.

If you’re a young adult when a parent has cancer, talk to your parents to establish what kind of role you want to have, and what they want from you, so there are no misunderstandings. Most parents don’t want their children to stop living their own lives to care for them, so continue to have honest conversations about what your role can (and should) be.

How to Maintain Normalcy

It’s possible to maintain some normalcy while a parent gets treatment. One option, especially if you’re living far from home, is to increase the number of phone calls to stay on top of your parent’s health and treatment. You may want to schedule specific call times. There are also easy ways to lend a hand no matter where they’re living, like helping with errands. In the digital age, you can order supplies, groceries and meal services online. You can set up automatic shipments for household items, like paper towels, to avoid added trips to stores.

If you, as a young adult, want to play a more active role, that might mean making changes to your schedule. If you’re in school, you might drop some of your extracurricular activities or lessen your course load. Those working may ask to take on fewer projects or hours, with the boss’s blessing, or work remotely part time. As before, make sure your teachers and employers know as much about your situation as you please, so they can offer the specific support you need.

Get Support

It’s common for young adults to feel guilty that they’re not doing more to help their parent, as they continue to attend school or work, possibly far from home. Conversely, it’s also common for a young adult to feel guilty and angry at having given up some of their independence to become a caregiver.

No matter the situation, consider your mental health when a parent has cancer. Getting exercise, eating healthful foods and enjoying leisure time can let you feel somewhat in control. Professional support is another option. Many hospitals offer counseling and oncology support groups. There are also online support groups for when you find yourself needing help when your schedule is hectic. Your school may offer counseling as well. Keep the lines of communication open with your parent during this difficult time in order to find the right balance to help them without upending your own life.

How can caregivers deal with their complex emotions when a loved one has cancer? Counseling services at UVA provide you the support and professional help you deserve during this difficult time.

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Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan