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How Do You Help When a Parent Has Cancer?

Becky and the Worry Cup is a children’s book included in the book, When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children.

Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, a doctor of internal medicine, wrote Becky and the Worry Cup to help her three children.

They were ages 2, 4 and 6 when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 36.

Aimed at pre-school and elementary school children’s ages, it captures children’s fears – founded and unfounded – and gives them answers and coping strategies.

The book was written over many years, partly because Harpham’s cancer recurred several times over the first 8 years after diagnosis.

With each recurrence, her children had different reactions to the recurrence, ranging from confidence that their Mom could just do what she did last time, to ignoring it as unimportant since Mom knew what to do, to asking what cancer was, since the time before they had been too young to understand.

As an adult and a physician, Harpham’s reactions were different from her children’s.

She knew. for instance, the seriousness of recurrences.

She continued to modify her children’s book according to the range of her children’s reactions and frank discussions with them when they read her manuscript.

Eventually, she was to write several books documenting the cancer journey as a physician, patient and survivor, including Diagnosis: Cancer: Your Guide to the First Months of Healthy Survivorship and After Cancer: A Guide to Your New Life.

Finally, she wrote this guide for parents, When A Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children, and included Becky and the Worry Cup in the book.

What Does She Suggest to Help Children?


Harpham suggests striving to preserve your children’s normal routines, even if it is someone else taking them to the soccer games.

Routines are even more important for children than adults and they need to be in the non-cancer world outside of their home and the hospital.

Prepare, however, for some difficulty in the transition between the two worlds.

Questions such as, “Why doesn’t anyone else’s Mommy have cancer?” or “Why can’t Mom take me to the park like other Moms?” can wrench your heart.

But, teaching your children that life is not always what you expect and no one has the same circumstances, no matter what it may look like from the outside, helps build the emotional strength that will see them through this journey.


Harpham continued her ritual of singing lullabies to her children.

Sometimes she had to sing over the phone from the hospital.

Eventually, she recorded them so her children would have the audio tapes to comfort them when they went to sleep.

Appropriate Truth

Harpham recommends including your children in the facts about what is happening, right from the beginning, even if you expect a good outcome.

The balance she suggests is, “Tell them enough, not everything.”

They will know something is going on because of increased conversations with friends, family talks and serious faces.

They will be less scared if you let them know what is happening.

The mantra she used was a variation of,

“Mommy has an illness called cancer.”

“She and the doctors are going to do everything possible to get her better.”

If you avoid the word “cancer,” the message the children will hear is that it is too awful to talk about.

She suggests that you develop a bond of trust with your children by telling them that if something changes about the illness you will tell them.

And, sometimes it is OK to admit you don’t know.

If a child asks if the parent is going to be all right, it is likely you don’t know.

You can say this, repeating the fact that she and the doctors are going to do everything they can to make her better.

Parents might warn their children that Mommy might get worse before she gets better.

Cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, can turn a seemingly healthy person into one who appears very ill.

Being specific with children that the parent is doing this in order to get better helps build the bond of trust.

Help children rehearse answers to uncomfortable questions, like “Why is your Mom bald?”

“She is taking some medicine to fight her cancer that makes her hair fall out. It will grow back when she stops taking the medicine.”

Anticipate Questions

Children have a different view of the world than adults.

Their questions are not about treatment and prognosis.

They are about practical matters in the child’s world.

Is cancer catching? No.

Did I cause it when I told Mommy I hated her and hoped she would die? No. Nothing you said, or did or thought caused the cancer.

Could I get hurt by Mom’s radiation treatments? No. Just like you can’t get sunburned from someone who is sunburned, you can’t get radiation from someone who has been treated with it.

Are you going to die? We and the doctors are doing everything we can to keep that from happening, but it is possible.

Linking Losses with Gains

“Something good from something bad” became a theme for Harpham’s way to teach her children that, though they couldn’t control events, they could control their reaction to them.

At first, it was hard to imagine good things coming out of this.

But, eventually, they started to realize:

  • Mom was at home more, instead of being away so much in her doctor’s practice
  • They got to sit on Mom’s bed and watch tv together.
  • They got to stay up late and watch movies with their parents on weekends.

Then, Harpham realized she needed to go through this exercise herself, so she wouldn’t worry so much about how this was affecting her young children.

She made her own list:

  • “When my children work around my limits, they are learning flexibility.”

  • “When my children tend to my needs, they are learning compassion.”

  • “When my children wait for me when I’m slow, they are learning patience.”

  • “When my children pick up the slack, they are learning teamwork.”

  • “When my children fend for themselves, they are learning self-sufficiency.”

  • “When my children deal with my setbacks, they are learning perserverance and resilience.”

Give Yourself and Your Caregiver a Break

Harpham repeats, “The best you can do is the best you can do.”

People are human. They get tired, discouraged, irritable.

Forgive yourself and your partner and your children when any of you respond to this stress.

Look for things that are not cancer-related to take yourself out of that world for a few moments of laughter and relaxation.

Harpham asked friends not to bring up cancer in front of her children, and provided another means for friends and family to be updated on events.

My own husband was once in the hospital for a biopsy for suspected testicular cancer.

The biopsy was negative, but recovery from surgery still took several days.

A number of friends dropped by to show their support, all gratefully received.

But, the best visit was from a couple of friends who breezed in with a bouquet of funny balloons, told non-stop jokes for 20 minutes, never mentioned the surgery or asked about the outcome, though we shared it at the end of the visit, and left us refreshed and renewed.

Where Is She Now?

A 23-year cancer survivor, Dr. Harpham is an advocate for cancer research and healthy survivorship.

She leads a fund-raising team on walks in the Dallas Lymphomathon.

She is a keynote speaker for survivorship conferences, a columnist for Oncology Times and writes a blog.

New Vocabulary


Note: this section is an effort to help educate readers about the vocabulary of cancer. I am not a medical professional and this is not meant to be taken as medical advice.

“Your counts are low.”

This refers to blood counts.

Chemotherapy can deplete blood cells because the medicine kills rapidly dividing cells, such as blood cells.

Low red blood cells can cause fatigue.

To counter it, rest and a diet rich in protein or supplemental iron may help.

Low white blood cells may make you more susceptible to infection.

To counter it, wash hands often and stay away from people who are sick, such as those with colds or the flu.

If blood counts are too low, a chemotherapy session may be delayed until they recover into a healthy range.

Click on the title to order When A Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children, from amazon.

It includes the children’s book, “Becky and the Worry Cup.”


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”


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