As parents, we never want to see our children scared or sad. We want to protect them from the harsh realities of life. Because of this, many people find it very difficult to talk to their kids about their cancer diagnosis. What to say and how to say it may feel completely overwhelming.
Talking with your children about your diagnosis is an important step in helping them adjust to a big, stressful change that is going on in their family. It is surprising how much children "pick up" and sense when something is wrong. Young children might assume that they are somehow the cause of the sadness and tension in the home. Older children may feel undervalued or rejected when they overhear information about the diagnosis that was not shared with them. They might also feel that the diagnosis is so terrible and hopeless that it can’t be openly discussed.
Not having open communication with your kids deprives them of the opportunity to ask questions and feel reassurance. They may worry and wonder about their future, their relationship with you and their safety.
The way you communicate with your child will be as individual as your relationship with them. However, here are a few tips for healthy communication about your cancer diagnosis:
- Give them information about your diagnosis as soon as you get it. This information should either come from a parent or from another adult relative or person who is close to them.
- Tell them what the disease is, what it means and what the treatment is expected to be. Use the proper word for the condition. The words "cancer," "leukemia" and "lymphoma" will give you the opportunity to educate the child about your disease. It will also help prevent any confusion they might have when trying to draw a parallel between your cancer and any illnesses or injuries they might have experienced.
- Encourage your child to ask questions and to let you know about any information they hear from others about your condition. This provides you with a chance to clarify any unclear information and to correct anything that is incorrect.
- Consider using dolls, pictures or artwork to explain concepts to your younger child. Steer your child away from magical thinking or beliefs about cancer by avoiding fairy tales for explanations.
- Let your child know what side effects you expect as a result of your disease or treatment, such as hair loss, weight loss, nausea and the like. Children adapt better to situations when they are prepared in advance.
- Let your child know how your illness or treatment is going to affect them on a day-to-day basis. Kids want to know if you are still going to pick them up from school, play ball with them on Sunday, help them with their homework or put them to bed at night. If there are things that you will no longer be able to do for them, let them know what you are doing to fill in the gaps. (For example, "I won’t be able to take you to your soccer practice this week, but I have made arrangements with Tommy’s mom to pick you up and take you home after.")
- Let them know that the illness is not their fault.
- Keep the communication lines open. Give your child the time to walk away and process new information, and then check in again with them later to see what their understanding is and how they are doing with it.
- Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep.
- Be open with discussions about death if or when the time comes. Allow the child the opportunity for closure and saying goodbye if possible.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Social workers, nurses and counselors are available to help you with tips for discussing cancer and if you are concerned about how well your child is coping.
Summing it Up
Conversations with your child about your cancer diagnosis are bound to be difficult at times, especially if you are having difficulty adjusting to the information yourself. Keep in mind that your reaction to your cancer diagnosis and how you cope with it provide cues to your child how they should handle it.
More often than not, with open communication, parents are surprised and amazed at how resilient children are and how well they can adjust to cancer in the family.
Raunch, P. Durant, S. “Helping children cope with a parent’s cancer” in Stern, T., Sekeres, M. (2004) Facing Cancer. McGraw-Hill: New York. (pp. 125- 136)
Eyre, H., Lange, D., Morris, L. (2002). Informed decisions 2nd ed. American Cancer Society: Atlanta, GA.