Monthly Archives: May 2015

Helping Children Cope Through a Loved One’s Cancer Diagnosis

This is a guest post by Jill Mitchell, PhD, LCSW, OSW-C and member of’s Oncology Advisory Council.

For parents or grandparents with cancer, “What should I say to my young kids?” and “How can I help them to cope?” are often primary concerns.


Jill Mitchell, Post Author

Although one person in the family has the physical disease of cancer, everyone in the family may struggle with the emotional, social, and psychological aspects of the illness.  Here are some pointers to keep in mind in helping the children in your life to cope with their loved one’s diagnosis with cancer.

  • Communicate with your children
    • Let them know that you are open to their questions
    • Be honest
    • Use the word “cancer” so that you can own that definition, and help dispel some of the misconceptions that they might be exposed to.
    • Check-in and encourage questions from your child, but also follow your child’s lead with regard to how much information they want to hear at one time. Just like adults, children sometimes need to process the information in bite-sized pieces.
  • Give children an outlet for their questions, thoughts, and emotions
    • For younger children, who are not as verbal, you may want to encourage them to draw pictures to express what they’re thinking or feeling
    • Since kids will sometimes be as eager to “protect” you from scary thoughts as you are eager to protect them, it can be helpful to identify an additional calm and trusted adult (teacher, aunt, grandparent, etc.) with whom they can talk if they have questions or concerns.
  • Kids often want to help
    • Assist them in figuring out age-appropriate ways to help you through this process (for example — drawing pictures for the loved one, doing dishes, walking the dog, etc.)
    • But re-affirm that school is their primary “job”
  • Keep as much structure as possible
    • Some disruption in schedules will be inevitable. That said, over the long-run as much consistency as you can keep for your child’s schedule (continuing to attend daycare, school, camp, or team practices, for example) can help them to cope.

What are some common concerns that children often have?

  • Younger children have a tendency toward “magical thinking”. They may think that they have caused the cancer because they acted badly, or that they could control the cancer through doing everything right. So, it is important to be on the lookout for this, and to let children know that they are not responsible for the cancer or for your health.  In addition, help guide the child to find age-appropriate ways to show their support (helping with chores, drawing pictures or writing cards, etc.)
  • Kids may also be afraid to get close to, hug, or kiss someone with cancer for fear that they may get sick. It’s important to clear up any misconceptions about “catching” cancer.
  • Don’t be surprised if most of your child’s questions focus on what will happen to them through this process –
    • “Will I get this?”
    • “Will I be able to go to the birthday party?”
    • And especially, “Who will take care of me if Mom/Dad gets too sick?”

These are normal, healthy questions.  Having a plan in place that the child is aware of can be very helpful.

  • Be prepared for the possibility that your child might ask if you could die.
    • Think in advance about how you might answer this.
    • Acknowledge this fear.
    • AND, reassure your child that you have a team of medical providers who are helping you.

Some other things you may want to consider:

  • How emotionally ready are you to talk? If you feel overwhelmed, is there another adult/family member who could help with the discussions?
  • Keep the child’s school in the loop. School can be a safe-haven and a source of supportive structure for the child.  It can be helpful to identify a main contact at the school to keep informed and to help inform you if they notice behavioral changes in your child that may be signs of distress.
  • Make time for fun, play, and social interaction because this can be as critical in helping children to cope as it is for adults.

Other resources that you might wish to explore:

About the author: Jill Mitchell received her doctorate in Medical Anthropology from UCLA, where she explored the intersection of culture, biology, and psychology in research focused on women’s experiences with metastatic breast cancer.   After realizing her passion for working with people with cancer, she then went on to complete a Masters in Social Work.  Dr. Mitchell, is presently an oncology-certified  licensed clinical social worker with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers in Colorado, where she counsels patients one-on-one, facilitates various support groups, and coordinates an international educational webinar series for psychosocial oncology professionals.    She also serves as a volunteer on the Advisory Council for the National non-profit,  Dr. Mitchell values humanity in the context of medical treatment, getting to know patients as people first, and helping patients and survivors find peace, meaning, and growth, even in the midst of their experience with cancer.



10 lessons learned from cancer

This is a guest blog post by Jeff Ward, a cancer survivor, Professional Co-Active Coach and certified Cancer Coach.

Jeff Ward Photo

Jeff Ward, Post Author

I am one of the very fortunate people that have overcome cancer and now live a cancer-free life. While the cancer journey is not one I wish on anyone, I do feel there are some profound lessons cancer has taught me, and I’d like to share them with you. In writing this, I have to think that I’m not alone on what I have learned.

  1. It sucks
    It’s no fun getting cancer. It doesn’t matter what type, what stage, at what age, it’s just a totally unpleasant turn of events in your life. One day you’re feeling fine, life is normal, then suddenly you hear from your doctor that you have cancer.And that’s just the beginning of your journey. Doctor visits, perhaps more tests, treatment options, caregiver concerns, big decisions to be made, and a fast learning curve in the medical world. That’s just the clinical/physical side of getting cancer. For many people getting the dreaded C word can be one of the most emotionally, spiritually and mentally draining events in their life.
  2. Some things are beyond our control
    Many diseases, such as heart disease, are preventable and can actually be reversed. And yes, some cancers are more preventable than others. Yet in the cancer world, many people who get cancer are fit, healthy and seemingly in great physical shape with no symptoms of any disease. And it affects people of almost any age from all walks of life.We can’t always control what life throws our way. But we can control how we react to and deal with those curveballs.
  3. It’s a wake-up call
    If getting told you have a disease that might kill you doesn’t have you take stock of your life, than I don’t know what will. It’s like a sharp poke in the eye. In many ways I feel like cancer has given me a clearer focus and deeper look at my life. It has made me think about my purpose on this planet, the life I want to live, the people I want to touch, the things I want to do and the legacy I want to leave. It has made me realize that life is precious and not to be taken for granted, and made me look at what makes it fulfilling in a more immediate sense.
  4. Cancer doesn’t define me
    Yes, I had cancer, but it hasn’t changed who I am deep down. It is not me, and yet it is a part of my life, though obviously uninvited. I’ve learned to not let it run my life; in fact, the more I go about living my life (thank you cancer for waking me up to do that), the less control cancer has on me, and I think that has helped me beat cancer and heal quicker. I am more than a disease; I was a vibrant person before I was diagnosed, and still am now having survived.
  5. It’s a gift
    It might sound silly, but in many ways I see my cancer as a gift. It has brought me closer to my kids. It has deepened my relationship with my wife. I have received love and care and concern from unexpected people and in unexpected ways. It has opened me up to feeling more empathy for others who may be suffering in some unseen way. It has woken me up to a heightened awareness of my place on this planet, and my relationship with those in my life. It has helped me see the heart and humanity in mankind.
  6. It’s indiscriminate
    When I was diagnosed, I was in very good physical shape, I ate a healthy diet, I exercised regularly, and I had no warnings or symptoms for what was to come. I did know that since my dad had cancer, I had a higher chance of getting it.I know triathletes and other athletes and people in peak physical shape that have been diagnosed. I know people from all walks of life and all ages, from children to grandparents, that have been diagnosed. It seems that cancer knows no boundaries; it can affect anyone at any time.
  7. Appreciate the little things in life
    I remember not long after my diagnosis, while still in a bit of shock, how I instinctively started to notice simple things in life that I used to breeze by pre-cancer. I remember pulling off to the side of the road in my car just to observe a flock of birds flying overhead. I remember stopping on a bike ride with a friend to pet and feed a horse, a horse that I had ridden by many times before. It wasn’t until after I had cancer that I really started to stop and take notice of the finer things in life, things that I often was too busy to notice, or that I took for granted. In a way getting cancer helped me be more present to my surroundings and be more grateful for the everyday, little things that most of us take for granted in our busy lives.
  8. Life is short
    Cancer has woken me up to the realization that we really do have a short run on this planet. Prior to cancer, I hadn’t thought too much about my mortality, but getting cancer changed that kind of thinking. Coming out of it, I realize that there is an end date, and that whatever life I want to live, it’s time to act on it now. And of course our lives can change very quickly by other non-cancer circumstances, such as another type of life-threatening illness, an accident, etc.
  9. Raised my level of empathy
    Getting cancer has helped me be more empathetic for all people, not just those with cancer. We don’t know what plight and path some people are on, what they put up with every day. I like to think I am not as judgmental as I used to be, because I just can’t tell from the surface what is really going on with another person’s life, and what suffering or circumstances they have or may be going through.
  10. I am not alone
    According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk of developing cancer in the US for men is slightly less than 1 in 2, for women a little more than 1 in 3. These numbers not only tell us how close to home cancer can be, but they have also propelled a level of research, care, treatment, and understanding of cancer that has never been seen before. Almost everyone knows someone who has been touched by cancer either as a patient, caregiver, or survivor.

On a personal level, talking about my cancer has opened up discussions with other people that I didn’t know have gone down the same path. I have received tremendous support from my doctors, wife, family, friends, and others in my life once I shared what I was going through. It’s almost like the world was already ready to embrace my humanity and support me on my journey.

Unknowingly, my cancer journey has been a place of personal growth for me. Your perspective on how you see your life, including all its ups and downs (like cancer), can have a huge impact on the quality of your life in not only dealing with the disease and overcoming it, but also in the life you live after treatment.

I would love to get your feedback or thoughts, either by email or phone, on what you have learned from your cancer journey.


About the author: Jeff Ward is a cancer survivor, no, actually a thriver, a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, certified Cancer Coach, dad, husband, and lover of nature and an adventurous life. The mission of his heart-based coaching is to help and inspire those affected by cancer, particularly cancer survivors who got a wake-up call from their cancer, to move from surviving to living a thriving life. You can reach Jeff at his website at, or email

Cancer Caregiver Needs Overlooked for Too Long


Marcia Donziger

Last month in Denver, I experienced the CancerCon Conference for the first time. Hosted by Stupid Cancer, hundreds of young adults fighting cancer gathered to meet, make new friends, share stories, learn about resources and discover they were not alone.

I was asked to facilitate a workshop on peer support for caregivers – the spouses, parents, children, siblings, significant others – those taking care of patients at home 24/7.

My colleague, Jill Mitchell, Phd., led the session with me. Jill is an oncology social worker at Rocky Mountain Cancer Center in Boulder, Colorado, and a long-standing member of the Oncology Advisory Council.

Fifty participants attended our session and the room was full. Do you know what surprised and impressed me the most? Ninety percent of these participants were men, specifically husbands caring for wives with cancer.

These men looked battle-weary in the aftermath of cancer hitting their homes. Yet they were brave – ready, willing and able to be vulnerable and share fears with each other in our group setting. Not your stereotypical expectation of men!

We began the session by asking what the biggest challenges were. The answers weren’t surprising:

  • Fear of losing their loved one
  • Loss of control of their lives
  • Cannot see what the future looks like
  • No time to take care of themselves
  • Financial burdens

One man had a “deer in the headlights” look, absolutely terrified of this horrific world that cancer brought down his fiancé. One week after he proposed to his girlfriend last summer, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She is 26, and is now newly diagnosed with a second type of cancer.

Another man shared that his wife is in remission, and it’s even harder to be a caregiver after the medical treatment ends. As a man, he said he needs to fix problems. During active treatment, he was busy and productive – driving her to the doctor, assisting with treatment decisions, monitoring medications, making meals, and more. Now that her treatment is over, he is feeling lost and doesn’t know how to help her through the emotional tidal waves that still come across her. He overcompensates by helping her in the “wrong” ways, which causes significant friction in their relationship. He is frustrated that treatment ended and their life is not back to normal.

When I asked the group what did work in helping them over hurdles, here are some responses:

  • Support from other caregivers who have been there
  • One combined outlet for information and guidance
  • Family getting involved to help with daily care needs and help with kids
  • Remembering that “every day is a new day”
  • Open communication about personal struggles related to caregiving
  • The chance to get away for a few hours
  • Healthy distractions – it can’t always be about cancer

One man’s cry for help was, “I need my friends and family to recognize that I need time for myself. I need them to volunteer to take over, so I can take care of myself too.” Every other person in the room nodded emphatically. Yes, they need a break! It’s exhausting; it’s draining; it’s often thankless work.

Caregiving is one of the most important ways we show love to those important to us. There’s no big paycheck, medal or award. We know our loved ones would do the same for us. It’s what we do for love.

Leading this session reinforced my belief that caregivers are the unsung heroes in the fight against cancer. It’s time to take notice of the caregivers in our lives. Thank them, give them a day off or bring them a meal. Anything makes a difference. They need to know how appreciated and loved they are too.

Caregiving-Quote Attends Oncology Nursing Society 40th Annual Congress had the honor and privilege of sharing our mission with over 3,000 oncology nursing professionals at the Oncology Nursing Society 40th Annual Congress in Orlando, FL. In addition to thanking these professionals for theirdedication and care of those who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, we were able talk about the important tools that provides to patients and caregivers.

They were excited to hear about our Helping Calendar that allows patients and caregivers to easily coordinate help such as rides to chemo or

Tricia McEuen, Chief Operating Officer and Steve, a volunteer, at ONS

Tricia McEuen, Chief Operating Officer and Steve, a volunteer, at ONS

meals for the family; the Giving Angels page where the overwhelming cost of cancer treatment can be lessened by raising funds in a private manner that allows friends and family to contribute; the cancer resources available through our website that are vetted specifically for cancer patients; and the connection to their community of support that is critical during this extremely difficult time in their life.

Very shortly, will be mailing out over 10,000 postcards to over 230 cancer centers around the country. These postcards will be shared with newly diagnosed cancer patients so they can build their online support community that will provide strength, courage, hope and inspiration during their cancer journey. is proud to be an exhibitor at ONS Congress and are grateful we can provide the tool that connects cancer patients and caregivers with their circle of family and friends.