Skip to main content

Seeing Cancer Through Siblings’ Eyes

What we don’t know can hurt them.

Credit: Illustration by Stephanie Wunderlich

Family-centered care is crucial to the care of children with cancer, whose diseases and treatments are both life-threatening and often prolonged over the course of several years, through survivorship or until death. Family-centered care recognizes the stark reality that cancer is disruptive to the family system.

While acknowledging the value of family-centered care to the ill child and parents in clinical practice, we may overlook other family members who would also benefit from family-centered care, most notably the healthy siblings of the child with cancer. Indeed, healthy siblings have described wanting more information about their ill brother or sister and the illness; parents have described wanting guidance on how to best meet the needs of the siblings when one child has advanced cancer and to do so across the spectrum of life-threatening illness.

Challenges associated with a cancer diagnosis, treatment, and adaptation impact the entire family. Recent research has demonstrated that families experience altered family function and may face an accumulation of risk over the course of illness, whereas other research reports that the experience of cancer increases family cohesion and family resilience.


Through The Sibling’s Eyes

Perceptions of the impact of cancer on the family often come from the parental perspective. However, recent research revealed worse agreement in parent—sibling pairs, regarding social and emotional health-related quality of life compared with parent—cancer survivor pairs.

Such findings remind us that each member of a family will assess the impact of the illness differently, and there may be limits to proxy-reporting. A recent qualitative synthesis found that parents across studies perceived siblings’ experienced feelings of jealousy, neglect, and bitterness. Yet, “while a few worked to counterbalance negative feelings in the siblings, a few rejected impartiality” regarding the distribution of parent time and attention because of the illness.

In this same meta-synthesis, parents also reported changes in relationships with all of their children; although they reported more intense relationships with the brain tumor survivor, parents described a more distant relationship with their healthy children, which they ascribed to increasing independence in the healthy children. Taken together, we see that families experience increasing stressors in the face of a beloved child’s cancer.

This cumulative stress, including the caregiving demands of the illness, may prompt misaligned views of the illness’s impact on the family and its individual members; parents and healthy siblings may not agree on the extent and nature of illness-related effects on the family and individual members. When a child is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family is disrupted; more “whole-family” research is needed to elucidate these siblings’ everyday experiences.

As pediatric nurses, we need to be concerned about these siblings. Recent research suggests that siblings experience both positive and negative effects related to the experience of having a brother or sister with cancer.

Whereas most healthy siblings weather the cancer experience, some experience anxiety, depression, or other psychopathology. Overall, many healthy siblings report feelings of fear, isolation, anger, guilt, and sadness. Another study found that siblings experience elevated cancer-related traumatic stress that interferes with daily functioning. For example, siblings of children with cancer experience negative changes in school performance when compared with their peers or norms. In addition, healthy siblings were found to miss as much school as their brother or sister with cancer, nearly twice that of their healthy peers.

In quantitative studies, siblings of children with cancer did not demonstrate worse social functioning or relationships than their peers. In qualitative studies, however, affected siblings have described disrupted friendships and less time in favorite extracurricular activities. Thus, although siblings experience a variety of reactions across the various domains of their lives, more research is necessary to probe into the nature and ramifications of these reactions from the siblings’ perspective.

Bereaved siblings have a great deal to teach us. Recent evidence demonstrates that long-term psychological sibling health may be related to communication around their brother or sister’s death. Siblings who were afraid of getting in the way of healthcare providers reported greater anxiety two through nine years after the death. This same group found insufficient communication within the family around illness was related to long-term sibling psychological health. Other research in siblings of children receiving stem cell transplants has shown they do not perceive that they receive adequate communication.

Recent research has also demonstrated that adolescent siblings of children with various life-threatening and life-limiting illnesses might avoid talking to their parents because they are hesitant to bother them with problems. Adolescent siblings may recognize the threat to their sibling’s life and appreciate that their parents are stressed. On the other hand, parents want their healthy children to know they are loved and want to keep their lives as normal as possible.


The Nurse’s Role

Nurses can promote a broadened scope of family-centered care and recognition of sibling needs in advanced disease and other times of turmoil. In doing so, we may mitigate some negative effects of strained or limited communication. Oncology nurses directly impact families through communication and can model open, compassionate, developmentally appropriate communication with siblings.

Moreover, coaching and teaching are inherent to nursing care of families. Thus, our role can be two-fold: communicating with siblings across settings to increase their comfort or to provide education and coaching to parents in discussing sensitive, emotional topics related to the illness. Teaching parents to keep lines of communication open across the various fronts on which they parent all their children recognizes the intensity of their work and can promote family function and child outcomes at a time when both might be vulnerable.

Kim Mooney-Doyle, PHD, CCNP-AC, completed an NINR-funded T32 postdoctoral fellowship titled “Research with Vulnerable Women, Children, and Families” at Penn Nursing. Reprinted with permission from Oncology Nursing News.