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About this blog


About this blog

My son, Justin, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on January 17, 2016. I have mostly muddled through parenting a childhood cancer patient. However, I would like to think I have learned a thing or two along the way, and am happy to share tips with other parents in the struggle.

  • Patient Name: Justin
  • Cancer Type: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
  • Age when diagnosed: 5

Thoughts on managing sibling anxiety

5th June 2019

Focusing on positive thoughts

“Mom, it hurts and I just want to die!”

My youngest son, Justin, was in treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but it wasn’t he exclaiming this while holding his chest and complaining of a stomach ache. It was my middle son, Michael, whom I rushed to the emergency room that night.

After a physical examination and several conversations, it was determined that my then eight-year-old son was experiencing an anxiety attack. I had no idea this could even happen to kids. Michael admitted that he was terrified he would “get cancer” and have to also go through the suffering that he had been watching Justin endure, his younger brother by sixteen months.

I enrolled him into a counseling program the next day. Michael’s therapist was kind, caring and made their sessions together fun by engaging him in games with questions that were designed to prompt him to talk about his thoughts and feelings.

Michael was also taught strategies to help manage his panic attacks and anxieties. I was able to implement these methods into our daily lives. One, which was particularly helpful for Michael, was focusing on positive thoughts. He will still sometimes come to me when he is worried or upset about something and ask me to help him “think about good stuff”. I talk about a fun day we had recently, something funny that happened or an upcoming event that he is looking forward to.

Taste, smell, hear, see and feel

We were also taught the five senses technique. This basically meant that when Michael felt anxious, he could distract himself by looking around the room and picking out one thing he could taste, smell, hear, see and feel. The taste category sometimes became really funny depending on what room we happened to be in. But laughing at ourselves was, of course, also a great distraction.

I think the most important thing to consider when choosing a therapist is to make sure your child is connecting with that person. If they are not, it is okay to move on to another. Your child will get the most from therapy with a counselor they feel comfortable with.

While Michael was on one end of the sibling anxiety spectrum, my oldest son, Nicky, was on the other. Experiencing his brother having cancer seemed to just mildly annoy Nicky, like a rainy day. But, I do believe, that even though kids may not be exhibiting signs of stress, it can still very well come out at any point, even later in life.

So I made sure to keep an eye on Nicky even though he seemed okay. I tried to take special care to leave an encouraging note in his lunchbox, engage him in conversation about his friends, or even just watch “Stranger Things” with him and pretend to be interested.

Dogs have a way of relieving stress and bringing joy

Making time for elaborate one-on-one activities with siblings is nice, but not always realistic or affordable when your child has cancer. Don’t feel badly if you can’t manage a ball game or theatre outing with the siblings. I found that my kids were just as happy with little things. After all, they just want our attention. My husband, Jeff, and I have done things like play a board game, shoot the basketball around, watch a movie or bake cookies with them. Even something as silly as playing charades for five minutes will show them that they are still a priority among all the chaos that has entered your home. And, yes, I was tired and forcing myself to do these things half the time, but my boys’ obvious delight was worth it.

Lastly, and possibly some very insane advice, for managing sibling anxiety as well as childhood cancer patient anxiety, is to acquire a pet. Yes, I house-trained a puppy while my child was on chemotherapy. It was totally crazy. But. My motives were purely medicinal. Dogs have a way of relieving stress and bringing joy. I believe this because I have seen it. I am not a dog person. However, my theory is that if kids are happy, their bodies heal better. I do believe our new addition, a golden retriever named Buddy, did wonders for relieving both Justin and Michael’s anxiety. I can’t say the same for myself, but, hey, it was an act of love. And Buddy has grown on me. A little.

Above all, childhood cancer parents, just do your best, be gentle with yourselves and hold fast to hope.

This article was written by Katie Pierantozzi. You can follow Katie on Twitter, or read her blog for more.

Want to share your story? Please email stories@childrenwithcancer.org.uk