Kid’s Cancer Sucks: A Father’s Financial Trauma

Gavin Kerr / June 23, 2020

“Even if treatments are covered by insurance, outside costs are exorbitant. You’re already dealing with an overwhelming situation, and now you have to face something people stress about every day without also facing this fight. This literally feels like Hell on Earth. I’m about to start crying just filling out this piece of crap.”  Survey Respondent Dad

Every day families face the trauma of a child’s life-changing illness or injury.  Every day parents struggle to care for their sick child, support that child’s siblings, and avoid financial ruin.  No father can be prepared – psychologically or financially – for the diagnosis of cancer in his child, or any other severe illness.  Is it any surprise that one year after a child’s diagnosis, 57% of dads scored in the moderate to severe range for post-traumatic stress symptoms? [i]  Nearly 20 years after my son’s diagnosis of osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, I live with my trauma symptoms every day.

As fathers, our suffering comes not only from the nature of our child’s illness but from the financial crisis created by healthcare bills, insufficient insurance coverage, and job insecurity  – an insecurity that is now magnified by the coronavirus pandemic. The depth and breadth of the trauma fathers experience is demonstrated in a research article my colleagues and I recently published titled Father’s Psychological Responses to Pediatric Cancer-Induced Financial Distress[ii].

Our study found that,

“Conflicting role responsibilities (be there for a child; work to maintain income and insurance coverage) seemed to generate responses resembling characteristic post-traumatic stress symptoms in reaction to acute declines in family finances and/or the chronic stress of insufficient finances to meet financial demands, that is, financial trauma. Fathers’ personal sense of not being able to adequately provide for their child with cancer and also meet their family’s basic needs produced embarrassment and humiliation, which led to discomfort talking about finances; fear, persistent thoughts and anxiety about money; reduced joy; beliefs that they did not deserve to express their needs; and feeling vulnerable to repeated financial stressors.” 

For many fathers, the inability to fulfill our responsibilities to protect our children, be our family’s breadwinners, navigate the maze of healthcare benefits, bills, and bureaucracy, and support our partners is emotionally devastating.  These feelings contribute to high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms, as described in the following chart:

How Dads Can Cope with Their Child’s Illness

Having an ill or injured child often challenges your innermost beliefs about the safety of your children. You’re worried about what will happen, even if you are not showing that to others.  You will focus on taking care of your child, keeping your job, supporting your family, but parenting, especially when your child faces a life-changing illness or injury, is a marathon, not a sprint. You need rest, nutrition, and time to recharge to be effective as a father, employee, and caregiver – now and in the months and years to come.

Below are some strategies to help you cope and build resilience from the moment of your child’s diagnosis, through treatment and into recovery.

  • Take care to meet your basic needs. If you are not sleeping or eating, it will be hard to be effective.
  • Pay attention to your own stress and emotions. Talk about what you are feeling and experiencing with people you trust, such as family, friends, clergy, your doctor, financial planners, or a counselor.
  • Keep an eye out for symptoms of post-traumatic stress. You might also ask your close family and friends to help you notice if you are struggling to cope. You can find a list of warning signs of PTSD here.
  • Be especially careful not to increase smoking, alcohol or other unhealthy ways of coping when you feel worried, upset or stressed.
  • In addition to the basics, try to find time to do an activity that helps you mentally and emotionally recharge. Hobbies may seem insignificant in the face of other responsibilities, but time for yourself can help keep you going.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is a stressful time and there are only so many hours in the day. Most friends and family members are not only happy, but eager to help.

Yes, these times are tough, but you can make it through. To learn more about coping strategies and building resilience in the face of trauma, visit the Parents/Caregiver section of CopingSpace.

About the Author

Gavin Kerr is the father of three, including his son Ryan who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, at the age of 12.  After 5 cancer recurrences and years of chemotherapy and surgery, including the amputation of his right leg, Ryan lost his battle and passed away.  His experiences in finding resilience as a cancer dad informed this blog post and the research article.

Gavin and his wife Cindy founded Ryan’s Case for Smiles (CFS) in 2007. Ryan’s Case for Smiles’ (CFS) mission initially focused on bringing comfort to children with cancer and other life-changing illnesses during their hospital stays.  CFS operates through a dedicated volunteer network of 120 local chapters spread across North America.  Local chapters manage thousands of volunteers who have delivered 2.2M whimsical pillowcases as well as host sewing days for children in over 360 hospitals.

Over the years, CFS’ mission has grown to include families as well as the children, focusing on enhancing their ability to cope with the illness today, while building resilience to thrive in the future.  Since 2015, CFS has partnered with the Center for Pediatric Traumatic Stress (CPTS) to produce, a research-informed online suite of resources to help parents minimize family trauma and support siblings. In addition, CFS has dedicated itself to training and empowering Child Life Specialists and Social Workers to support families as they go through these traumatic experiences.


[1] Fathers’ psychological responses to pediatric cancer-induced financial distress. Santacroce SJ1Killela MK1Kerr G2Leckey JA1Kneipp SM1.Pediatric Blood Cancer, April 11, 2020

[1] ibid

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