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Supporting the Mental Health of Young Adults with Cancer

August 2021 Vol 7 No 4
Sara Olsher
Santa Rosa, California
Breast cancer survivor, Founder of Mighty + Bright

It was 4 PM on a Friday afternoon in 2017 when I received the news that no young mother wants to hear: “What I’m seeing can be nothing other than cancer.” I left the radiologist’s office with a brochure titled “A Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer,” and a horrible fear that I’d be leaving my 6-year-old daughter motherless. I was 34 years old.

Treatment and Family Welfare

What followed was a year and a half of treatment to cure my stage II breast cancer. My daughter watched as our lives were thrown into chaos, I lost all my hair, and I struggled to come up with activities to do with my daughter that didn’t exhaust me. We both felt powerless.

Throughout my treatment, I found a serious lack of resources to help me parent my daughter. Children are the main concern of many patients with cancer who are under age 50, and many of us struggle to know how to support our kids.

Talking to our kids about our diagnosis is a terrifying task, and many avoid it altogether, not realizing the benefits of honesty and the pitfalls of hiding the truth.

For me, balancing my treatment with my daughter’s welfare became one of my primary mental health issues.

How to Support Children of Young Adults with Cancer

I had several ways to make my cancer treatment easier on my daughter.

The first was to create a pie chart, which lived on a dry-erase board in our kitchen. Each time I had a chemotherapy cycle, I colored in a piece of the pie. This way, my daughter could see that although the treatment felt to be endless, we were actually making progress.

During my chemotherapy treatment, we created 25 “kindness rocks”: using oil pens, we put inspiring messages on rocks we found during our short walks. Then, months later, during my radiation treatment, we placed all the rocks around our community, until there were none left, and my radiation treatments were over. There’s something beautiful about creating a tangible countdown until treatment is over.

When my active treatment ended, I gave my daughter a gift of a special necklace, and a letter that I will save for her to re-read when she’s older. She has been through more than many adults have, and she’s incredibly resilient. I wanted to honor that.

Visual Routine

Many professionals and parents understand the importance of routine in helping children during difficult times. By creating a visual routine, kids know what to expect and what’s expected of them. This decreases the mental burden of the parent, who no longer needs to nag, and provides a visual reminder to the child that their life is safe and somewhat predictable.

In an effort to support families facing a cancer diagnosis, I created the resource kit I desperately wish I had been handed after my diagnosis, which takes routines to the next level.

The kit includes my picture book called What Happens When Someone I Love Has Cancer, which explains the science of cancer and how it affects a child’s day-to-day, and a reusable visual calendar, so the child can understand what treatments their parent will have, who is dropping them off and picking them up from school, and more.

A visual calendar serves as a reminder that the subject of cancer is not taboo—it’s something a child can talk about, ask questions about, and help with.

For many kids, a parent’s cancer treatment can create a sense that they have lost control over their lives. By giving a child a calendar that belongs to them, they feel ownership over their own life, which creates a sense of safety and security.

“Special Time” for Connecting with Your Kids

In addition to the general benefits of a visual calendar, the calendar helped my mental health as a parent in ways I can barely describe. There are reusable stickers for low-key activities that the parent can do with the child, which takes the mental load off the parents and helps them stay emotionally connected to their kids. The child chooses the activity, then puts it on the calendar, so everyone has something to look forward to.

At a time when I was too exhausted to come up with ideas, this was a lifesaver. It can be easily replicated by making a list of low-key activities for the child to choose from. Just don’t forget to set a 15-minute timer, so the parent is not stuck playing cards for 2 hours, or having to cut it short, disappointing the child.

Another wonderful idea suggested by a therapist is called “special time.” For 15 minutes before bedtime, my daughter and I hung out in my bed cuddling, reading, or talking—she got to choose what we did. She really looked forward to our “special time,” and often used it as an opportunity to tell me about her day, or share things that were worrying her.

Young Cancer Survivors

For many young cancer survivors, our experience feels as if it’s a very different disease from the cancer of older patients. Our concerns are different, and the lives we have to balance, which include minor children, fertility concerns, and our careers, are incredibly stressful.

Doctors work to save our physical lives, but our psychosocial and emotional needs are often neglected. For many survivors, the time during and after treatment is mentally devastating, and we are left to pick up the pieces.

My hope is that more patients with cancer will receive resources to address their emotional difficulties during treatment, rather than have to seek them out themselves.

To support a patient’s family is to support the patient. Although some hospitals have child life specialists to help these families, many programs have very little resources. I hope that healthcare providers will consider these suggestions when supporting their young patients.

For more information about my books, What Happens When Someone I Love Has Cancer, and What Happens When a Kid Has Cancer, as well as the visual calendar, visit

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