If Your Brother, Sister, Or Parent Has Cancer

When someone in the family has cancer, there can be a lot of changes for everyone and some of them can be really challenging and difficult to understand.

And then there are the feelings that you have about your brother, sister, Mum or Dad who may have cancer … we all react differently but you may be worried, angry, frightened and sad, just to name a few!

It’s important to know that these feelings are normal and there is help available for you through Kenzie’s Gift or though the Macmillan Cancer Support website.

The website also has tips to help if your friend, boyfriend or girlfriend has cancer. It’ll give you some information about supporting that person and ways of understanding your own feelings.

What’s Upsetting You?

Just as our bodies can become unwell, our minds can also become unwell at times too. This can be triggered when we are stressed or faced with life challenges such as cancer.

Just as there are different types of physical illness and treatment plans, the same applies to mental health. But mental illness is something most people find hard to talk about. Here, we have outlined some information about common mental health problems that can occur when facing a diagnosis of cancer. There are tips to help you cope, but you can also access one on one support from Kenzie’s Gift.

Anger Anxiety Depression Post-traumatic stress

Anger issues

A cancer diagnosis can trigger some very strong feelings that can be hard to cope with, and anger is one of them. If you don’t have good ways of coping with it, you can end up behaving in ways that you might later wish you hadn’t. 


When we get angry, the hormone adrenalin makes our teeth clench and our shoulders tense. You may feel your heart pump faster, your puku might churn, your fists may clench and muscles tense. These are natural reactions and can be useful signals to warn us when we’re getting worked up. 

What are anger issues?

It’s normal and healthy to feel angry when there is good reason – like facing cancer. It’s important to manage those feelings so you don’t hurt yourself or others. There are outlets for your anger to manage it in a safe way. Ask yourself if you: 

  • Hit or physically hurt other people 
  • Shout at other people 
  • Mix with people who get you into trouble
  • Break things
  • Lose control
  • Wind people up

If you answered yes to the above, you could do with some support and advice on managing your anger, because anger can lead to other problems if you don’t get help. 

Some additional problems include eating problems, depression, risky behaviour, refusing to go to kura (school), becoming isolated, self-harm, drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs. These might seem to be an outlet for our anger, but they don’t help in the long-term. 

What to do when you're angry  

If you’re feeling angry there are things you can do to help yourself. The first thing you need to do is talk to someone about how you are feeling. 

This might be:

  • Parent or guardian
  • Grandparents or whānau
  • Friends
  • A teacher who you respect and trust
  • Social worker
  • Youth worker
  • Kenzie’s Gift 1-on-1 Support
  • Mentor

Kenzie’s Gift 1-on-1 Support

Kenzie’s Gift provides one on one support with registered child and adolescent psychotherapists who are there to help you with problems you’re having. They listen and talk to you about how you’re feeling and give you the tools and coping mechanisms to deal with your anger. These services are confidential,  so your friends don’t need to know about these sessions if you don’t want them to. You’ll probably have weekly, one-hour sessions until you both feel you’re doing well and don’t need to see them anymore. 


In time you may learn to deal with the anger and here are some things that can help you manage your feelings:

  • Go for a walk
  • Listen to music
  • Take deep breaths
  • Take some exercise
  • Do something you enjoy, skateboarding, painting, surfing  
  • Talk to someone about how you are feeling
  • Play computer games to take your mind off it
  • Read a book 
  • Have a nice hot bath. Learn to cope with your anger. 

If you are feeling very angry try and walk away from the situation to calm down rather than saying or doing something you might regret later.


Problems with anxiety are really common. According to the charity Anxiety UK, as many as 1 in 6 mātātahi will experience an anxiety problem at some point in their lives. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the feeling of fear or panic. Most people feel anxious, panicky or fearful about situations in life, and a cancer diagnosis is no different. Often, once the difficult time is over, you feel better and calmer. Sometimes the feelings of fear or anxiety continue or you may feel a stronger sense of fear than others. This is when anxiety becomes a problem and can affect you doing everyday things. 


Symptoms of anxiety include feeling frightened, nervous or panicky all the time. You may also feel down or depressed and have difficulties sleeping and eating, be unable to concentrate on things and feel tired and irritable. Physically you might have palpitations or a racing of your heart, dry mouth, trembling, faintness and you may experience puku cramps or diarrhoea. 


Mātātahi with anxiety usually experience anxiety in three ways: - generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks or phobias


GAD - Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Mātātahi who have GAD worry a lot of the time and the anxiety makes doing everyday things difficult. 

Panic attacks

Panic attacks are feelings of extreme anxiety that come on unpredictably and can last for about 10 minutes. If you have a panic attack, you may have difficulties breathing, feel panicky and out of control. These feelings gradually subside and go away but can leave you feeling quite shaken.


If you have a phobia, you tend to feel very nervous and panicky about one thing in particular. The thing that you might be anxious about may not be dangerous but can make you feel really anxious. 


Most mātātahi will occasionally feel down or upset by certain things going on in their lives. A cancer diagnosis can sometimes leave you feeling sad, lonely, down, anxious or stressed for longer periods of time. 


If these feelings start to impact on your everyday life and are preventing you from doing things you would normally do and enjoy, you may be experiencing depression. 

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Not wanting to do things that you previously enjoyed  
  • Not wanting to meet up with friends or avoiding situations  
  • Sleeping more or less than normal 
  • Eating more or less than normal 
  • Feeling irritable, upset, miserable or lonely 
  • Being self-critical 
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Maybe wanting to self-harm 
  • Feeling tired and not having any energy.

It is OK to ask for help.

The first thing to do is talk to someone.

This could be your parents, a sibling, friend, teacher, GP or one of Kenzie’s Gift therapists. People who care about you will want to help you to feel better so don’t feel worried about talking to people.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a friend, teacher or your parents, go and see your GP or contact Kenzie’s Gift.

Don’t suffer in silence.

Keeping it all to yourself will only worsen your feelings of anxiety or depression and remember, you’re not the only one to feel like this, other young mātātahi – and adults too – experience depression. 

Tips to help:

  • Talk to someone. 
  • Access one on one support
  • Get some fresh air most days. 
  • Get some regular exercise 
  • Do things you enjoy 
  • Try to eat regularly even if it is small meals. 
  • Write a diary about how you are feeling. 
  • Visit your GP 
  • Remember – you are not alone.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When something traumatic or life threatening happens to a loved one, or us it can affect us physically and mentally, (often affecting the way we think about things). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can result if you experience something where you feel really frightened, helpless or like you might die, (all feelings and experiences commonly associated with cancer). 

There are three main types of symptoms of PTSD:

Flashbacks or nightmares

You keep remembering the traumatic event and get flashbacks or nightmares, reliving the event.

Avoidance and numbing

You are scared to relive the event or think about it and so you keep yourself really busy to keep your mind occupied. You may keep busy at work or college and avoid anything that reminds you of the event.

Being on guard and unable to relax

You may feel anxious all the time and unable to let your guard down for fear that the traumatic event will happen again. You might feel jumpy and irritable. Younger tamariki can also have PTSD, but instead of vividly remembering the event and having flashbacks, they might re-enact the experience through play, have unpleasant dreams, or have problems sleeping. 

Other symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Anxiety 
  • Irritability
  • Problems sleeping
  • Problems eating 
  • Anger 
  • Guilt (at being a survivor) 
  • Depression
  • Drinking too much alcohol/taking drugs
  • Diarrhoea 
  • Muscle aches. 

Some people experience PTSD immediately after a traumatic event or it may start weeks, months or years later although symptoms would usually appear within six months.