When a child is diagnosed with cancer, the entire family is affected by the experience, especially the child’s siblings. Young children experience their brother or sister’s cancer while they are still learning to make sense of the world. Often this leaves them feeling scared, angry, anxious or sad.
According to Meredith Barnhart, a licensed clinical social worker at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), a global leader in the fight against cancer, “Childhood cancer has a direct impact on siblings and it’s inevitable that a cancer diagnosis will drastically change a family’s routine. Siblings need extra support when adjusting to their new normal.”
Shameeza Singh, of New York City, knows all too well the impact childhood cancer has on siblings. In June 2016, her oldest son, King, was diagnosed with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 2 years old. He underwent nearly four years of intense daily treatment, which she describes as “extremely debilitating.” As a result of his treatment, King, now 6, developed life-altering side effects including brain swelling and neuropathy and his family has been affected in many ways.
King’s siblings, Mesiah and Faith, have experienced the impact of cancer firsthand from a very young age. At the time of his diagnosis, Mesiah was only 1 year old; the family welcomed his sister Faith two years into his treatment. Because of King’s cancer, the Singh family has had to make many adjustments to accommodate his health. “King’s immune system is compromised so formal school settings and daycare were never an option for any of my children,” says Singh. “They’re homeschooled together, so running to emergency hospital visits is something they experience together.”
In October 2019, King completed chemotherapy, but continues to battle the chronic side effects of his treatment. Mesiah and Faith still attend regular doctor appointments with him and although there’s still a long road ahead, the Singh family lives in faith that King’s cancer won’t return.
“King is a hero to all of us and I’m so amazed by how much he continues to inspire his brother and sister,” says Singh. “It’s also heartwarming to see my children support their big brother the best way they know how. We appreciate all the little things and cherish our family moments together.”
Barnhart leads LLS’s Information Resource Center, a team of social workers, nurses and health educators who provide blood cancer patients and caregivers with free personalized information and support tailored to their specific diagnosis and needs. Here’s some ways Barnhart says parents can help their children cope with a sibling’s cancer:
- Create an open and honest dialogue. Children are very savvy and will come to their own conclusions if they think they’re not being told the truth about their sibling’s diagnosis and treatment. If possible, introduce siblings to the treatment team to help them develop a better understanding of what their brother or sister is going through.
- Arrange for alone time. While this might be difficult to do in the midst of dealing with cancer, it’s very important for parents to set aside time for a cancer patient’s siblings. Even if it’s just a short amount of time, it’s something that well siblings can count on and look forward to.
- Encourage him/her to be helpful. When possible, involve siblings in the treatment and arrange for them to visit the hospital or clinic. They can feel helpful just by spending time with their brother or sister.
- Identify a safe person for children to talk to. The parents of a child with cancer are consumed with emotion and lots of time is likely spent with doctors and at treatment. Hospital and school social workers and psychologists may be able to provide information about support programs for siblings of children with cancer. Parents should ask the school for a hall pass so that the children are able to leave class to talk to that person when needed.
- Provide consistent, fair discipline to all children. Even though it may be more difficult than ever, it’s critical that parents try and be as consistent as possible, even when it comes to discipline.
Singh says these strategies have helped her family navigate the complicated and unpredictable childhood cancer journey. She is grateful for the support she received from LLS throughout King’s road to survivorship and hopes more organizations will offer much needed resources and support for siblings dealing with childhood cancer.
LLS recently launched The LLS Children’s Initiative, a $100 million comprehensive attack on children’s cancer from every angle, from new research investment to advance novel therapies and bolster clinical trials, to enhanced services and support for children and their families, to renewed policy efforts.
“Our family and LLS share a common goal — to end cancer,” says Singh.
Today, King, an aspiring model, has become an asset to his community in many ways and the entire Singh family spends much of their time advocating for patients and families in similar situations and spreading awareness about childhood cancer.