My brother or sister has cancer

Finding out your brother or sister has cancer will send a massive shockwave through both your lives. Being a sibling is tough – it means you might feel a bit side-lined or out of the loop. Your parents or sibling might be at the centre of everything but you can still play a role and get the care and support you need too.

What do I do?

Life is not going to feel normal right now. It’s only natural to have lots of questions and emotions. You will want to help your brother or sister but you will be going through some tough emotions yourself. Your parents might have less time for you while also asking you to take on more responsibility. Life is going to be different. There is no right or wrong way to get through this but some of the tips below might help.

Learn about cancer and treatment

Doing some research and finding out about the type of cancer and treatment your brother or sister is facing can help you both. It will mean you will know a bit more about what to expect and what your sibling is going through. It could help to know what the side effects might be. For example, if they are having chemo, they may lose their hair, feel tired and their mood may change.

There is plenty of information out there on different types of cancer and treatment. Make sure you use the resources on our website or sites like Teenage Cancer Trust, Cancer Research UK or Macmillan. You can also ask the doctors to suggest trusted websites.

Look after yourself

While it is great to be there for your sibling you need to look after yourself too. Watching someone you love go through cancer can be scary and tough. You may feel like you have an extra weight on your shoulders as well as your own emotions. It’s important you have someone who will listen to how you’re feeling. Plan times to see your own friends and make sure you talk about how you are feeling. Remember the people caring for your brother or sister will also be there for you.

Be proactive

Being proactive can help you and your family during this difficult time. Finding out more about your sibling’s treatment, when it is and what the side effects are could help you plan. You might be able to help with lifts to the hospital, household chores like walking the dog or cooking food. If you’re younger, you can keep your sibling company if they are at home. Ask your parents how you can help.

What is my risk of getting cancer?

Some cancers run in families. While this might mean you have a higher chance of getting cancer it does not always mean you will get it.
The risk of getting breast, bowel or ovarian cancers is higher if close relatives have had them. Some cancers like cervical cancer and lung cancer are less likely to be genetic.
Talk to your sibling’s care team if you are worried.

How is my life going to change?

Things are going to be very different right now as you and your family cope with your sibling’s cancer diagnosis. If you all live under one roof, you can expect some changes. One of your parents might spend lots of time with your sibling, staying with them during treatment or giving up work to care for them. You’ll all be coping with your own emotions and stress levels might be high. The main thing is to work as a team.

Stress on your parents or guardians

Your parents might seem distracted. They might be stressed about things which do not seem important to you like keeping the house clean or work. They might also seem sadder and angrier than usual. They might be feeling very overwhelmed and you might feel pushed aside.
Think about how you could work together as a team. Are there any practical tasks you can do to take the pressure off your parents? Can you sit with your brother or sister to keep them company?
The main thing to remember is none of this is your fault. Your family members might seem angrier than usual but they are not angry with you.

Emotions

You will probably be feeling lots of emotions you have never experienced before. Worry, fear and jealousy are all normal emotions. Hiding how you feel to keep the peace will only make things harder. Find someone who can support your needs – whether that’s a friend, partner or family member. It’s important to take care of yourself and keep talking about what’s going on.
It’s normal to feel sad or low – and you should not feel guilty or selfish. Telling your brother or sister how you feel can help you both open up and bring you closer.

Struggling with school

Concentrating at school while your brother or sister has cancer will not be easy. You may feel worried about them and you could be tired if you are doing more at home.
You might not feel like doing school work is important when your sibling is so unwell.
The most important thing is to tell your teachers what is happening and how you feel. They might be able to help come up with a plan to help keep you on track, like reasonable adjustments for exams, or access to a counsellor.

Will they be able to stay at home while they have treatment?

Whether or not your sibling can stay at home will depend on their care plan. If your brother or sister is treated in their local hospital and can go in and out for treatment, life might carry on fairly normally day-to-day.
The chances are they will need to stay in hospital for periods of time. They will probably go to a specialist treatment centre for young people. These are often far away so they might have to make long trips, or stay nearby.

How to come to terms with it

We know you siblings get a raw deal. You have to cope with the changes going on all around you while carrying on with ‘normal’ life when everything feels anything but normal. The best thing you can do is make sure you keep talking about what’s going on for you. The better you’re able to take care of yourself, the more energy you will have to help your brother or sister. Being in a good headspace will let you be there for them in a way that sometimes only siblings can be for each other.

How can I help?

There are plenty of things you can do to help after your brother or sister’s diagnosis. Finding out about their cancer and treatment can help you understand what they are going through. It might also make them feel more at ease if they want to talk about things. Be there for them if they want to open up or need you to help with practical things. Your parents will be grateful for your help too.

Be there for them

Your sibling may not want to talk about things but knowing you are there and ready will be a great comfort to them. You will need to be patient as their treatment may be making them feel tired and could affect their mood. You can also be there for them in practical ways like helping them keep in touch with friends, getting them food or going to appointments with them.

Help parents more with chores

Your parents are going to be distracted and struggling to keep on top of daily chores. You could offer to help around the house. You could sort the dinner or do some cleaning. You could ask if there are any tasks they need doing like putting the bins out or posting letters. Any little thing you can do will help. Your parents may not get a chance to say it but they will be very grateful.

Be the link between your sibling and their friends

It’s important your sibling stays in touch with friends if they are unable to go to school or college. You could remind your brother or sister to invite friends over or you could arrange something if they are well enough to have people visit. You could encourage their friends to message them, or you could help your sibling to video call. We have some other tips here.

The big questions

You will have lots of questions about your sibling’s cancer, what it means and how to cope. You will be experiencing some big emotions, too. Do not be afraid to ask for help and guidance, whether it’s from your parents, other family members or friends.

What should I say to my sibling?

It can be tricky to know what to say to your sibling but the thing they will probably like the most is just spending time with you. Ask them if there’s anything you can do and be patient with them. You can also tell them what you’ve been up to help them take their mind off it. Just let them know you are there and try to do the things you would usually do with them if possible.

Is my brother or sister going to die?

This is probably going to be your biggest fear. You might not even want to go there yet – and that is totally fine. The likelihood is your brother or sister will be okay. Most types of cancer are treatable and 87% survive young people’s cancers according to Cancer Research UK.
The best thing you can do is speak to their care team. They will know better than anyone how things are going.

Have my parents forgotten I exist?

No – but you might feel like they have sometimes. Your parents won’t mean to ignore you but their attention and focus is likely to be on your sibling right now.
Emotionally they’re dealing with a lot, too. Lots of parents cope by going into ‘survival mode’ which means focusing all their energy on your sibling’s treatment and the next steps. They’ll also be under stress to keep everything together. Bills still need paying, the washing still needs doing, life carries on and it’s really hard.
Try to be patient with your parents but at the same time, be honest. If you explain to them how you’re feeling, it’s more likely you’ll get the reassurance you need. You might be able to come up with ways to help each other and work more as a team to get through this together.

Why do I feel jealous?

It’s not surprising if you feel jealous. It might feel like your brother or sister is more important than you. You might understand why they need extra attention but that does not always make it easier.
Because of everything going on, parents often just run out of brain space. This means they could forget about things that matter to you, or have less time to focus on your life. It can be really hard if you feel like you are missing out. Try to get attention and support from friends or other family. Do not feel bad about venting or asking for help – you still have your own life to live.

Read more about what your sibling is dealing with

Understanding what your brother or sister is up against can really make a difference. Browse our info for young people with cancer by topic to familiarise yourself with some of the issues they might be facing.

Support yourself

Being there for your sibling doesn’t mean that you’re not going to feel down at times too. Watching someone you love go through cancer can be scary and tough. It means an extra weight on your shoulders while you also have to deal with your own emotions.

It’s normal to feel sad or low – and you shouldn’t feel guilty or selfish. In fact, admitting this to your brother or sister can help you both open up to each other and bring you closer. It’s also important that you have someone who will listen to how you’re feeling. So talk to a friend, your family, doctor or a counsellor. Remember that the people caring for your brother or sister will also be there for you.

Page reviewed: May 2023

Next review: 2027

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