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How to Support Your Adult Child With Cancer

Kate Middleton has a support system that includes her parents, but helping an adult child through a health crisis is different than when they were kids

spinner image a female adult child, hugging her mother
Danielle Del Plato

When Kate Middleton shared a video announcing her cancer, she wanted other cancer survivors to know they weren’t alone. Thankfully, the Princess of Wales, 42, has a lot of people in her corner — including her parents, Carole and Michael Middleton, and in-laws, King Charles (who was recently diagnosed with cancer himself) and Queen Camilla. It undoubtedly came as a shock for all four parental figures while they sorted out the best way to support her.

spinner image Kate Middletown with an inset photo of her parents, Carole and Michael Middleton
From left: Kate Middletown; Carole and Michael Middleton
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images; Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

That’s true of any parent dealing with the news that their child has cancer. It’s a nightmare scenario, and the fears that follow may ignite an instinct to protect and support. But when that child is an adult, it’s crucial to take a step back and think about the role your child wants you to play.

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“As a parent, you have the unique ability to bring calm, support and stability to your son/daughter when the world itself feels unsafe and unstable,” says licensed clinical psychologist Frances Baumgarten, president and cofounder of Fran’s Place Center for Cancer Counseling, adding that it’s wonderful to be able to be the “rock” at that moment of crisis.

Knowing how to be that rock, however, isn’t always easy, and you definitely don’t want to cause your child more stress. Here’s a list from the experts of dos and don’ts of supporting an adult child with cancer.

Do be a good listener

Giving your child advice and problem-solving might be instinctual, but sometimes what your adult-aged child needs most is a listening ear.

“Listening is a skill, and sometimes we are so involved in the emotional journey of a cancer experience and we don’t stop and we don’t listen,” says Veronica Land-Davis, executive director of HopeWell Cancer Support.

Land-Davis says parents should try to hear what their child “needs in that moment” so they don’t miss “valuable information” their loved one is trying to share with them.

If you do speak, do so thoughtfully so you create a safe space for your child to share as much as they’d like, says social psychologist Megan Shen, research professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Her research focuses on supporting patients with advanced cancer, as well as their loved ones. 

Some of the common statements and questions she recommends parents try using include:

  • I’m so sorry, that’s really tough.
  • How are you feeling about [your cancer] today? 
  • How can I help you today?
  • What do you need that’s on your plate that I can take off your plate?

Don’t make assumptions

All of the experts who shared advice on supporting an adult child with cancer emphasized the importance of clear communication — especially since it can help you avoid any harmful assumptions about what your child might need.

“Assuming you know your child well enough, assuming you know what they want to hear, or say: I think that’s where there can be real challenges because the way everyone handles cancer can be very different. Different than they’ve even handled other stressors in their past,” Shen says. 

Taisel Losada-Bekou says it can be helpful to communicate that you will be there for your child “no matter what.” She is the division head of Henry Ford Health’s psycho-oncology service, where her primary focus is to care for cancer patients and their caregivers from diagnosis through survivorship.

One thing she’ll practice with parents is saying something like: “I’m here for you. I’m going to be on this journey with you. I want to be here however you need me to. I want to be able to help you with any areas that you might need some assistance with, but I do want to give you that space to share with me what that might be. I don’t want to make assumptions about how you might need support.”

Do know your role

Parents might want to jump in and be an active “protector,” Land-Davis says, but that isn’t always what their adult child needs.

“As a protector, you want to talk to the doctor, you want to talk to the nurse, you want to talk to the navigators, but that’s not your role, especially if you haven’t been given permission by your adult child to take on that role,” Land-Davis says. 

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Shen says checking in with your child is a great way to figure out the role your child wants you to fill. This communication is “so important” because an adult cancer patient’s needs “can be wildly different from one child to the next.”

Losada-Bekou also says you also should be mindful of other support people your child has in their lives.

“Depending on their stage of life, they may have a partner, siblings, friends, their own kids who might be supportive of them as well,” Losada-Bekou says. “So that means that you might play, as a parent, a larger role or a smaller role. And that’s OK.”

Don’t share information about your child’s cancer before asking if it’s OK

As your adult child deals with cancer, it is up to them how much they want other people to know about their journey. So Land-Davis cautions parents against sharing private information . 

Land-Davis says she counseled a family where an adult child opted not to share her diagnosis with family, but the mother shared it with another family member. Land-Davis says she understood the mother’s need for support as she watched her daughter go through treatment and lose her hair. But Land-Davis says a resource outside of the family, such as a licensed therapist, would have been a better option for support.

Don’t give unsolicited advice

Giving advice to children often comes naturally as a parent. But make sure to ask for permission to share your opinions, Losada-Bekou says.

“Try to avoid being intrusive,” she says. “Your opinions are not always going to be requested. So try to avoid just giving unsolicited advice, if you can, unless it’s asked for or you asked, ‘Do you mind if I share with you some things that I might do or I might suggest?’”

Do be direct

Being direct is the best way to learn how to help your son or daughter in exactly the ways they want. If you’re up front in asking, you’ll be able to offer support as needed and avoid becoming overbearing.

“Asking directly, ‘How can I support you?,’ ‘How can I be there for you?,’ I think is a really powerful question,” Losada-Bekou says. “And this can be not only emotional support, but, when someone is going through a cancer diagnosis, they may really benefit from help with things like transportation, child care, making meals, helping them coordinate certain things like appointments or medications, and things like that.”

Part of being direct also means you should not shy away from difficult conversations your son or daughter wants to have — even if they bring about challenging feelings. Losada-Bekou says some parents will try to avoid these hard talks in an effort to protect their child, but it’s critical to be open to them and engage without judgment.

“Sometimes those topics can be really tough, like death or dying. And that, of course, is never comfortable for a parent,” Losada-Bekou says. “But placing yourself in your child’s shoes and imagining how difficult it must be to even have that discussion, I think, puts you in a place where you might be more open to that conversation.”

Don’t invalidate your child’s feelings

No matter how old your child is, it’s very natural to want to nurture, according to Losada-Bekou.

“Unfortunately, when that effort is made to try to fix things … we can inadvertently make them feel more helpless, you know, almost childish in a way,” Losada-Bekou says.

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She says it can be easy to accidentally invalidate your child’s feelings as you’re trying to make them feel better. So parents should make an effort to acknowledge those feelings rather than “fix.”

“So, for example, if you have a daughter who just lost her hair as a result of chemotherapy, and you are really making an effort to make her feel better, saying, ‘Oh, you look wonderful to me. No one’s going to notice,’ you know, those are things that I think are very natural for a parent to want to say, but ultimately can invalidate the feelings that they have,” Losada-Bekou says.

Do try to help them achieve a sense of normalcy

Baumgarten says, “Most cancer patients fight hard not to lose their place in relationships and work.” So, even if you think your child needs to rest and take a break from a lot of their normal activities, it’s crucial to support them if they want to continue with whatever parts of their normal life that they are able to manage.

“No one wants to be a patient,” Baumgarten says. “Quality of life plays an important role in how someone can tolerate the diagnosis and treatments.”

Shen says maintaining normalcy in the relationship you have with your child can also make a big difference — especially if you were close with them before their diagnosis.

“If you are involved in the day-to-day of their life or you do check in with them regularly before diagnosis, do not shy away from that after because you don’t know what to say or you’re not exactly sure how to get it right,” Shen says. “I think just the presence and involvement of parents for kids who have that close relationship is so meaningful, and you can figure that out together.”

Even if you weren’t super close with your child before their diagnosis, Shen says checking in and showing that you care “can also be really meaningful.”

In addition, don’t forget to offer your adult child some normalcy by talking about things other than cancer. Losada-Bekou says she hears a lot of patients talk about needing a break from the c-word.

“Having conversations about other things doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring what they’re going through,” Losada-Bekou says. “It just means you’re giving them a little break, a little distraction from that particular topic that they’re probably talking about or thinking about all the time.”

Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too

Remember you can’t be the best caregiver or support system you can be if you’re neglecting your own needs. Losada-Bekou says she’s seen many families come to her hospital wanting to spend every moment supporting their loved one. But she always encourages them to get some good nutrition and sleep.

“It’s that classic, you know, putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, kind of thing,” she says. “If you’re not taking care of yourself, you're just not going to be in your best place to take care of someone else. And we often have to remind families of that.”

Prioritizing that self-care can look different for everyone, Land-Davis says. Some of her recommendations include finding a support group, seeking a therapist, trying a yoga class and journaling your feelings.

No matter what your situation is like as a parent supporting your adult child with cancer, know there are people out there who can help you through the journey.

“Always explore the supportive resources that your health system might have,” Losada-Bekou says. “There’s not only resources for the patients themselves, but their families as well.... So don’t be afraid to seek help.”

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