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Childhood cancer: A mother’s perspective

What happens to mothers when their child is diagnosed with cancer? While each story is different, below we’ve outlined some common experiences mothers can face throughout their child’s cancer experience.

Caring for a child with cancer turns a family’s life completely upside down. Mothers often say that from the moment their child is diagnosed, their motherhood journey changes. The initial shock, loss of control and the prospect of losing their child is very real. Mums often feel the stress, anxiety and trauma caused by the ripple effect that her child’s diagnosis has across all aspects of her life.

When a child is diagnosed

Most cancer diagnoses happen suddenly. A simple test result at their GP can turn into an urgent visit to the closest children’s hospital, which for some, may be close to home and for others, an emergency air-transfer to their closest children’s hospital for further investigations and treatment. Mum may not have time to prepare, often going with just the clothes on her back, unprepared for what lies ahead. While focusing on her child, mum might be confused about her child’s new reality and may feel fear, overwhelm and anxiety over the unknown, all the while trying to gently explain to her child what is happening. This time can be very overwhelming for mothers as she tries to understand the medical implications of her child’s diagnosis, while also managing the many changes in her day-to-day-life. Some thoughts which could be going through a mums’ mind may be;

  • How will she tell her other children or the extended family, her boss, the school, her friends?
  • How can she manage her other children if she a sole parent and doesn’t have a partner or extended family nearby for support?
  • How might she manage her job or career?

At the beginning and throughout her child’s cancer experience, it can be hard for a mum to ask for help for many different reasons. She may not know what she needs, she may be embarrassed to ask, or she may not even think to ask because she feels she can manage it on her own.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help as everyone will want to do something. Get them to cook, take your other children out, do grocery shopping, run errands. You just can’t do it ALL, as much as you want to.

During treatment

Once treatment starts, in some cases, mum may take on the role of being primary caregiver to her child in the hospital, taking on the responsibilities for helping her child through their treatment. She may move to part time or give up work to be able to stay with her child, often handing over family and household responsibilities to her partner, extended family, or her extended support system, depending on her situation. Living away from home may put pressure on the relationships between a mum and the rest of the family, adding to this, the financial and emotional strain she might feel. Mum may feel guilty because she can’t spend time with her other children, or feel guilt around the cancer diagnosis, thinking somehow it could have been her fault. She may put her needs last. She may not have the capacity to invest in and sustain her close relationships. The lack of connection for mum can become isolating and lonely.

“Hour by hour, day by day, one foot in front of the other. The days are long but the years are short. Listen to your child’s doctors. Make more fun memories in a day than painful ones. Self-care IS important, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Hold on tight to your loved ones and remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. Love + Strength.”

Returning home

Returning home can be one of the hardest transitions to cope with. It can be very scary to lose the support that comes with being constantly surrounded by doctors and nurses at the hospital. If her child is an outpatient, a mother may have one foot at home, one foot in the hospital, going back and forth until her child has finished treatment.

New challenges come with having a child with cancer at home. They still require high levels of care and need to be treated carefully due to their weaker immune systems. It may be difficult to keep other children away from her sick child, or to explain why they can’t play with their sibling like they used to. Unlike what many loved ones may hope, coming home is often a difficult adjustment to make. Life has changed so much that often returning to how things used to be is impossible.

When treatment ends

When treatment ends, mothers may feel many mixed emotions. Excitement and relief often pairs with fear and uncertainty, and she may need some time and space as she continues to process what her and her child have just been through. The fear of relapse and an uncertain future for her child is very real and moving forward for her can come with its own challenges. A mothers’ experience of her child’s cancer changes her during and beyond the end of treatment. It may change her perception of herself as a mother to her child who has gone through cancer along with her other children. Her family routine can be significantly disrupted, having spent a large amount of time separated from her family. She may need the support of her family and extended community to navigate the changes in her family dynamics and try to create her new normal. The impacts of cancer don’t cease when cancer “goes away.”

This timeline is a general outline of the cancer experience, however each mothers’ experience will be unique and specific to her situation. We hope that this article acts as a base for you to understand what a mother may be experiencing so you can provide more meaningful and personalised care for her and her family. Please remember that Redkite is here to support you as you care for a family facing childhood cancer. You can contact us here.

To find out more from the families themselves, you can read their stories here

View stories

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