When a Sibling Has Cancer

When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it affects everyone in the family.  Brothers and sisters may react in many different ways as they adjust to all the changes that cancer brings.

They may:

  • Feel confused about why their brother or sister and caregivers are away from home a lot
  • Feel afraid they might also get cancer or that their sibling may die
  • Feel left out, alone, or ignored
  • Worry about being away from caregivers
  • Worry about their brother or sister
  • Feel jealous about the attention and gifts their brother or sister gets
  • Be irritable or get mad easily
  • Act younger than they are
  • Act out to get attention
  • Not want to go to school
  • Have trouble sleeping

Ways To Help

There are ways to support siblings as they adjust to having a brother or sister with cancer.

These include:

  • Being honest with them about their brother or sister’s illness, using words they can understand
  • Making a plan. Talk to them about the schedule for caregivers being away, the plan for making sure someone is always with them, and how to get in touch with caregivers when they are away
  • Reassuring them that neither they nor their brother or sister caused the cancer
  • Helping them stick to their normal schedule and activities as much as possible
  • Planning special time with them and doing something fun
  • Letting them visit, call, or write to their brother or sister
  • Showing them that it is okay to be upset
  • Giving them a chance to talk about their worries
  • Helping them figure out what to say when people ask about their brother or sister
  • Letting them be a kid. Try to avoid letting them take on the role of a parent and asking them to do too much. If possible, reach out to neighbors, friends, or family for help with practical needs.

When to Seek Additional Support

While most siblings cope well, sometimes having a brother or sister with cancer can be very difficult. In those cases, it might be helpful for siblings to talk with a mental health care provider about how they are doing. Signs that a sibling is having an especially hard time and could use extra support include:

  • Sadness or worry that last a long time and get in the way of things like school, friendships, and other activities.
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Getting in trouble at school
  • Having a hard time focusing in class
  • Not wanting to be around friends
  • Not wanting to do activities they used to enjoy

Psychologists and other mental health providers are available to help siblings cope with having a brother or sister with cancer. Children’s National has a team of psychologists that work specifically with oncology patients and families, as well as other dedicated resources for families.

Some other helpful resources for siblings can be found at the following sites:

SuperSibs!
Siblings and Cancer