Parenting is tough enough as it is. Adding in the complications associated with a cancer diagnosis can make it seem unbearable. Yet millions of cancer survivors are parents, and their experience with the disease naturally requires them to face the realities of their own physical and emotional capabilities.

According to a 2010 study, approximately 18 percent of newly diagnosed cancer patients are parents to one or more minor children – of which nearly a third are under the age of six, and many were born after their parent was diagnosed. In total, more than 2.85 million minor children in the United States are living with a parent who is battling or has survived cancer.

We reached out to several cancer survivors who had children to see how they managed being a parent through it all. We also asked them for a piece of advice they would want to pass on to others who may find themselves in the same situation. The stories and advice are their own.

Lesa Behrens

Type of Cancer: Breast Cancer

Diagnosed at: 40

Mom to: Josh, Travis, Morgan

“Throughout the entire process of diagnosis, surgery, chemo, radiation, and more surgery I was honest and open with my boys about what was going on. I tried not to inundate them with a lot of facts, but let them ask questions so that they could process at their own pace.

Lesa Behrens and her family
Lesa Behrens and her family

“I am a person who has always thrived on teaching my boys to give back to the community that we live in and always pay it forward. This proved to be one of the best things that I have done because we were so taken care of by our community.

“I had treatment during the summer so I had a lot of help from the teachers at their school. My oldest son wanted to know different things about my situation than my middle son. My oldest son needed to see me at chemo, so I let him go, and my middle son need to talk to someone outside of the family, so I found him a great therapist. Neither were interested in going to a kids’ group, but they now have been able to talk with other kids when their moms are going through the something.”

Erin Carpenter

Type of Cancer: Breast Cancer; Melanoma

Diagnosed at: 31 (Breast Cancer); 34 (Melanoma)

Mom to: Jillian

Note: Erin is a “Sambassador” for The Sam Fund, an organization that provides financial support and online education to young adult cancer survivors.

Sambassador Erin Carpenter
Sambassador Erin Carpenter

“We utilized Gilda’s Club in our community, and I strongly encourage anyone who lives by one to use their services! They’re totally free to the cancer community and were a blessing for us. They have support groups for those with cancer, caregivers and children of all ages. They have a lot of free programs as well and seminars to attend. It was nice knowing I could attend any event there and always count on free childcare that my child loved and had a blast at!

“The Samfund has also been a huge source of support in my life. Just being able to connect with other parents, who are also young adults, who’ve been through similar journeys as myself is amazing.

“How you help your child/children cope with your cancer: Talk to them, and most importantly listen to them. They hear things we don’t think they hear, and they pick up on so much more than we ever think they would. They know you’re sick and you can’t hide it.

“Hiding cancer from a child versus talking to them is almost worse – they need to hear how you’re doing and that you’re okay or not okay. Kids can’t be okay unless Mom is okay, which includes helping them become okay with a terminal diagnosis. Answer questions honestly too; there is always a way to answer a question that is “age appropriate” for that child. Keep in mind how scared you are and how much scarier it is for your child!

“Also nap when you can because they never run out of energy but you will!”

Heather Hay

Type of cancer: Cervical cancer

Diagnosed at: 38 – recurrence at 40

Mom to: CJ, Joshua, Sarah Beth, Brooks, John Gibson

“The best piece of parenting advice I have for moms diagnosed with cancer would be to involve each of your children in a way that's appropriate to their age and personality.

Heather Hay and her children
Heather Hay and her children

“My oldest is very cerebral, and wanted to understand the techniques that the doctors at Moffitt used to treat my cancer. My 11-year-old son was somewhat scared of the idea of chemo and wanted to just snuggle and talk about what we would do when I got better. For my daughter, she was upset with my hair loss, and wanted to come with me to pick out head scarves!

“My two little boys are very young and didn't quite understand (thank goodness!) the magnitude of my cancer diagnosis. We found several books that explained it in a gentle and non-threatening way. They also came with me to my appointments and the doctors and nurses couldn't have been kinder to them.

“I was very fortunate to be seen at Moffitt Cancer Center, where they have an outreach program for the children of cancer patients. We received goodies, books, stuffed animals – and even got to hang out with members of an All Star Basketball Team! I will be forever grateful for the folks at Moffitt and the compassion they showed my children.”

Heather Von St. James

Type of cancer: Mesothelioma

Diagnosed at: 36

Mom to: Lily

“When I was diagnosed, my daughter was just 3½ months old, so she doesn't know life outside me with a cancer diagnosis. The other fact is, she was so young when I going through surgery and treatment so she doesn't remember the bad stuff. What she does deal with is the fact I go to Houston for check ups every six months, and that has just become the norm.

Heather Von St. James
Heather Von St. James

“We have always been up front and honest about the cancer with her. She knows I talk to patients almost on a weekly basis, and sometimes listens as I talk. I don't hide anything from her. I think she understands far more than I give her credit for, but for the most part, she is really pretty positive about the whole thing.

“The part that was hard for me, was caring for her when she was so young and I was so sick. I spent many days on the couch while she played in the living room near me. I am able to close the doors to my living room, so I would do that to keep her contained so I could rest and recover. She was such an easy kid. We also had tons of help. Neighbors would offer to take her on the weekends so I could rest, my sister in law would take her overnight on a weekly basis so I could recover as well. It was the literal village that surrounded us that got us through those first few months and years.

“I am lucky, I haven't had to find resources to help her cope with the cancer, but I have learned of a place called Camp Kesem that is specifically for kids of parents who have cancer. A friend from Stupid Cancer sends her son every year and has told me how amazing it has been for him.

“Being a parent while going through cancer is no easy task, and you have to do what is right for your individual family. For us? It's up front and honest.. and having her involved in what we do, so she feels a part of it. that doesn't work for every family. The important thing to do is do what is right for you.”