Growing Even Stronger: Helping a Healthy Sibling When a Child is Ill
When Pediatric Associates of the Northwest Medical Assistant Lynn Hanks' son, Ian, was diagnosed last February with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, the prognosis was favorable. After six rounds of chemotherapy, the treatment was complete and the family believed Ian was in remission. The tumor wasn't likely to come back. But it did. And this time, the cancer, a combination of Hodgkin's and Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma called Grey Cell Lymphoma, is extremely difficult to treat. It will likely require a bone marrow/stem cell transplant and the two-year post treatment outlook is not optimal.Ian's younger brother, Rory, has been noticeably affected by the news of his brother's returning cancer. He understands that his brother's cancer is more serious this time, and that the likelihood of a cancer-free total remission outcome is smaller. Noticing a change in behavior at school, Rory's teacher called Lynn to discuss how the school community might help support Rory during the turbulent time.
“When children face severe medical problems, the entire family is impacted,” says PANW Psychologist Tamara Pederson. “Siblings of children facing health crises and protracted medical intervention often experience difficult and painful emotions, separations from their sibling and parent(s), and increased responsibilities and disruption of normal activities. They may lack information about their sibling’s health and treatment process, and can feel excluded, as if they are on the outside of the important events occurring within the family.”
With the encouragement of the community, Lynn set up a “YouCaring” page to serve as a place to provide updates about Ian's health, as well as a place where people can help support the family's fight against Ian's cancer.
Lynn and Ian submitted a request to the Make a Wish Foundation for a trip to Disneyland. Ian's wish was granted sooner than expected, given that he's more likely to be able to enjoy the trip to Disneyland while he's not undergoing treatment. Lynn, Ian, and Rory enjoyed five fun-filled days in sunny California last week. Rory, age 10, was especially impressed with the Fast Passes the Make a Wish Foundation provided the family. "They were faster than regular Fast Passes and the longest we ever waited in line for a ride was five minutes!" Lynn reports that the time away was just what the family needed to connect and have fun before the intensity of treatment begins.
Ian began treatment immediately after he returned from Disneyland. He's prepared to do whatever it takes to beat the disease. “Others who've had this type of cancer were much older than I am and maybe not as strong. I am young and I'm healthy. I'm gonna fight this!” says the high school junior. This determination gives his younger brother Rory hope, one of the family's greatest strengths over the last year.
The good news is that research shows most siblings and their families are resilient in the face of these very stressful experiences, returning to a sense of well-being over time, often with new strengths, wisdom, and competencies.
Parents and other adult family members can help.
- To aid well siblings’ adjustment and ability to cope with these challenges, parents should share information about the child’s illness and treatment in a manner that is appropriate for the sibling’s developmental stage and assist them in finding a helping role within the family (e.g. collecting cards from schoolmates, writing down needed items on the family grocery list, helping a younger sibling with homework).
- It is also recommended that parents use the social support and help that may be offered by family or friends and maintain the sibling’s routines and activities to the degree possible.
- To reduce the isolation that siblings experience, parents should also allow siblings to visit the hospital, if possible, and help siblings stay in touch with their brother or sister and their parents through video-chats, card or letter writing.
- Take time out for the siblings. Ask siblings about their feelings, assuring them that their emotions are understandable and normal, and spend special time with the sibling when possible - taking time to experience “normal” moments together.
- If stress affects the sibling’s ability to cope effectively, parents should consider scheduling an appointment with a behavioral health treatment provider.
Here are some resources for children and adolescents whose sibling is facing a serious medical issue:
- Harry Goes to The Hospital: A Story for Children About What it’s Like to Be in the Hospital by Howard J. Bennett. Ages 4 to 8.
- Little Tree: A Story for Children With Serious Medical Problems, 2nd Edition by Joyce C. Mills. Ages 4-8.
- What About me? When Brothers and Sisters Bet Sick by Allen Peterkin. Ages 4 to 8.
- Upside Down and Backwards: A Sibling’s Journey Through Childhood Cancer by Julie Breves, Kay Tenhulzen, and Fred Wilkinson. Age 8 to 13.
- Jamie’s Journey: Cancer from the Voice of a Sibling by Sharon Wozny. Ages 10 to 16.
- On-line support for teens: http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/ill-sibling.html?WT.ac=p-ra
Facing severe medical problems is stressful for most siblings, but each child brings with them a unique set of personal strengths, sources of resilience, and experiences in overcoming adversity. With support and nurturing, children can rise from these situations with even greater strength.
For updates about the Hanks/Olson family and Ian's fight against cancer, go to www.youcaring.com. Enter “Ian Olson” in the fundraiser window to the right.