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Talking to Your Children About Cancer

Network - Spring 2010

By Laura Prus

Cancer is not a subject easily discussed with children. Yet, one in four people with cancer has a child. Although talking to your children about cancer may seem difficult, it is imperative that you provide them with honest information about your illness.

Martha Aschenbrenner, program manager in the Children’s Cancer Hospital at M. D. Anderson, says that children of parents with cancer may have higher rates of anxiety, especially if they are not well informed. Children who sense something amiss within their family will invent explanations and assume it’s their fault.

“Children know their parents very well,” she says. “They know when something in their family has changed, and because of their egocentric perspective, they often assume that they’re the cause of the change.”

Her advice?

To avoid this misconception, always share honest information about your cancer. Speak to your children about your diagnosis and treatment to let them know what the side effects will be, how long they might last and how it might affect the family.

“We cannot hide information from our children. If we attempt to, we’re telling our kids that they can’t trust us, and that it’s OK to lie,” Aschenbrenner says.

To communicate most effectively, she suggests using real words, not euphemisms. The word “cancer” will help children distinguish and comprehend your illness. The word “sick,” however, may cause confusion and panic for children when they, too, become sick with a fever or common cold.

Images and analogies also help children comprehend complex information. For example, Aschenbrenner compares a tumor to a bunch of grapes. Like a cluster of grapes, cells clump together to form a tumor. Also, grapes may fall off the bunch and roll away, much as cancer cells may leave the original site.

The same technique may be used to describe your treatment. Chemotherapy is similar to a video game on a search-and-destroy mission, and radiation is like an invisible beam of light. Surgery, simply put, takes out the affected cells.

Start with ‘the three C’s’

Aschenbrenner also emphasizes the importance of providing as much information as your children can comprehend. “I encourage parents to start with the three C’s,” she says. “It’s called cancer; it’s not catching; and it’s not caused by anything they did or didn’t do.”

Depending on their ages, children will respond differently to the news. Children under 5 years old, for instance, may only repeat what was said, whereas children 6 to 11 years old may ask for specific details.

“Children 6 to 11 will almost always ask if the parent is going to die. It’s a natural response to their dawning understanding that illness can lead to death,” Aschenbrenner says.

On the other hand, teenagers are not likely to share their feelings and may confide in someone outside the family. It’s probable that they’ll think about the implications cancer might have on them and on the family.

Although speaking with your children may be challenging, remember that there’s a learning curve for everyone. “Give yourself a break, and keep communication open,” she says.

The CLIMB program is a free six-week support program to help children whose parents or grandparents have cancer. If you are in the Houston area and are interested, call Marisa Minor in the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6826.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center