Learning that you have cancer is extremely challenging; however, telling your child about it may be even more difficult. Many people diagnosed with cancer face this issue: more than one-fifth of cancer patients and survivors have a son or daughter under 18 years old. Here are some tips about when, where, and how to explain your cancer diagnosis to your child.
Tell your child about your cancer as soon as possible. Even though some parents feel the urge to protect their children, delaying this conversation is never a good idea. “It’s not a matter of if they’ll find out; it’s a matter of when,” said Martha Aschenbrenner, LPC, a counselor in the Acute Palliative Care Unit at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Being open with your child sooner rather than later fosters trust and lets your child understand that he or she can openly talk to you about your cancer.
Choose a familiar location for the conversation. If this isn’t possible, choose a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted by others. Your primary goal should be making your child feel safe and secure. Ms. Aschenbrenner suggested having a minimal number of adults there so that your child can be comfortable and react naturally to your news. If you have multiple children, you can tell them at the same time as long as you allow them to individually express questions or concerns with you in private after your conversation.
Be honest but as encouraging as possible. Ms. Aschenbrenner said, “It is important to present cancer in the context of an illness for which treatment can be provided.” Although you might be anxious about the obstacles ahead of you, it will help your child if you focus on the treatments available and your hope for remission. Let your child know that you are ready to fight cancer and that you have a team of doctors helping you.
It is important to name cancer, isolating it from other, possibly contagious diseases. Your child may be confused if you simply say that you’re sick, so try to avoid being vague when speaking about cancer. Also, be sure to tell your child that the cancer isn’t anybody’s fault and that he or she isn’t in any way responsible for your disease; although this is obvious to adults, it may not be to a child.
Describe the treatment plan in terms your child can understand. When telling your child about your treatment, also let him or her know about possible side effects. Communicating ahead of time that you might experience hair loss or weight change makes these events less alarming if they occur later.
As you continue treatment, keep your child updated with any new information, whether it’s good or bad. Ms. Aschenbrenner stressed the importance of continued honesty and said, “Keeping your child updated is respectful. Children have a right to know what’s going on with their parents.”
Let your child know about any changes in his or her schedule. Tell your child that it’s important to continue attending school and taking part in other activities. Although consistency in schedule is important to your child, it’s alright to ask him or her to become slightly more independent. In the weeks following your conversation, you can ask if your child would be willing to make his or her own lunch every once in a while or help with dinner if the need arises.
Monitor your child’s reaction to your cancer. “If your child responds to your illness or treatment like he or she would respond to any other difficulty, then you know you’re doing alright,” Ms. Aschenbrenner said. If your child is responding abnormally to the stresses your cancer presents, consider putting him or her in contact with a counselor, which may be available through your child’s school, or with a local support group. Most cancer hospitals, including MD Anderson, offer counseling services for patients and their families. MD Anderson also has two programs, CLIMB and Teen CLIMB, designed to help children cope with their parent’s cancer.
Keep the conversation going. Over the next weeks and months, tell your child when you do or don’t have new information, and never try to answer your child’s questions by guessing; it’s okay to admit that you don’t know. Above all, remain open to your child’s questions and concerns, and remember the importance of honesty when you respond.
– N. Danckers
For more information, talk to your physician or call MD Anderson’s Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195. To learn about CLIMB or Teen CLIMB, call 713-792-7575.
OncoLog, January 2015, Volume 60, Issue 1