Telling your child you have cancer
When you receive a cancer diagnosis as a parent, it affects not only you, but your whole family. One of the most difficult experiences beyond actually hearing the news, may be how to break it to your child.
There’s no easy way to tackle this, but it’s important to keep some things in mind.
“It’s really all about helping your children understand your experience, which calls for timing and sensitivity,” says Mary Sue Fidale, registered oncology nurse at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill.
Being sensitive also means meeting children where they’re at in terms of their age and development. Fidale, a licensed clinical professional counselor, explains that your children may go through the same stages that you do, such as experiencing feelings of disbelief, anger, hope and acceptance. However, they may have different needs at different ages, and during your illness their needs may change.
Breastcancer.org offers 10 helpful tips on how to have this difficult conversation with young children. These tips are also useful for school-age children and for all types of cancer diagnoses as well:
- Plan what you’re going to say ahead of time.
- Use simple language to explain what cancer is, where it’s located in your body and how it will be treated.
- Ensure that children understand that they are not to blame for cancer and that it’s not contagious.
- Explain how treatment will affect your body.
- Reassure children that their needs will still be met.
- Keep usual limits and structure in place such as limited TV viewing or curfews.
- Encourage children to ask questions.
- Help children understand you will still make time for them.
- Be optimistic and upbeat without making promises.
- Make teachers, coaches and other caregivers aware of what’s happening.
Although finding a way to tell children you have cancer may be difficult, it is very important that they be told.
“I’ve had patients who didn’t want to tell their kids, and I don’t think that’s a good idea because when you come home with no hair and a wig, for example, they will feel alienated and anger could come out if they do find out,” Fidale says.
Fidale also recommends that parents find local support groups that handle the psychosocial component of care. Fidale leads an activity night called “Kids Night Out” that can be a fun outlet for kids coping with cancer in their families.
“It’s not a support group,” she says, “It’s more like a vacation from cancer. It’s an activity night where they do activities and make crafts. When they make crafts they can make them for a parent or whoever has cancer and they feel like they are part of the experience.”
Child life specialists at many hospital systems can also offer support along with national organizations like the American Cancer Society, Fidale says. She also recommends resources that can help kids cope as well, including:
- Books to help your children deal with cancer (American Cancer Society)
- Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer (Cancercare.org)
- When Your Parent Has Cancer, A Guide for Teens (National Cancer Institute)
“Having cancer is not a positive experience, but if you can somehow help your children understand that you’ll do your best to get through whatever it is you’re going through, then that can help,” Fidale says.
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health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care sites, also including freelance or intern writers.