Coping with Parental Cancer: A Normative Approach to Understanding Diagnosed and Non-Diagnosed Parent Reports of Family Communication Processes After a Parental Cancer Diagnosis

Skye Chernichky-Karcher, Purdue University


The National Cancer Institute estimates that roughly 24% of adults with cancer are parenting children under the age of 18 (Rauch et al., 2002) resulting in approximately 3 million children in the United States facing parental cancer (Weaver et. al, 2010). These children face an extremely stressful experience; however, family communication and coping processes help buffer this stress (Gazendam-Donofrio et al., 2007). This project integrates Goldsmith’s (2004) normative theory of social support and models of family coping and resilience (Boss, 2002; Buzzanell, 2010) to investigate family communication processes in families experiencing parental cancer. Specifically, this project explores how families derive and attribute meaning from a parental cancer diagnosis, and how meanings change throughout the cancer trajectory (i.e., diagnosis, treatment and remission). Furthermore, this study investigates the dilemmas diagnosed and non-diagnosed parents experience when discussing cancer-related topics with their adolescent children and the strategies they use to navigate such dilemmas. Finally, this project explores, in detail, whether families can be grouped in terms of the dilemmas, strategies, and challenges parents report experiencing while coping with cancer. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 23 diagnosed and 9 non-diagnosed parents (N = 32) who had been (or their partner had been) diagnosed with cancer within the last five years while parenting a child between the ages of 9 and 17 at the time of diagnosis. Data were analyzed using grounded theory (Charmaz, 2016) and cross-case data matrix (Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, 2014) methods. Findings indicate that family members derive and attribute various meanings of cancer across the cancer trajectory. Additionally, slight differences exist among the meanings that diagnosed and non-diagnosed parents attribute to the cancer at diagnosis, treatment, and remission. Parents reported experiencing four unique dilemmas when discussing cancer with their adolescent children: (a) I want to be honest with my kids but I don’t want to scare them, (b) I want to be open with my kids but I don’t want to tell them everything, (c) I want to maintain positivity while also recognizing the severity of cancer, and (d) I want to keep things normal but also acknowledge the abnormalities of managing cancer. Parents identified several strategies to navigate these dilemmas. Finally, family coping profiles reveal three family types that struggled coping: (a) families who were completely open when communicating about cancer-related topics, (b) families who avoided communicating about cancer-related topics, and (c) families who experienced dilemmas between open/honest communication and protecting/shielding their children from the stressful aspects of cancer but did not use multiple strategies to navigate these dilemmas. Families that were classified as successfully coping with the cancer experience were those that navigated tensions using multiple strategies or who, because of the cancer stage or treatment plan, were not largely affected by the cancer diagnosis. These findings have theoretical and practical implications for families managing cancer and offer several avenues for future research.




Wilson, Purdue University.

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