Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a difficult, life changing, and emotional journey for any individual. As adults, this news can be challenging and scary to process — so, how do we know where to begin when it comes to delivering this news to our children?
When thinking about how to talk with your children about cancer, the most important thing is to be honest. Yes, you need to consider the age of your children but regardless of how young they are, honesty is crucial. Kids are generally wiser than we adults give them credit for and they often overhear our conversations and the language we use. Do not be afraid of the big “C” word. Be clear about where your cancer is (naming the body part and how it is being affected) and what they can expect as you go through your treatment. For example, if you think you are going to lose your hair from chemotherapy, prepare them for that. If you are not upfront with your children, you run the risk of them creating the worst case scenario in their minds, which often leaves them confused and scared about your diagnosis.
Finding the right time to sit your kids down to have a discussion is also paramount. You do not want to rush the conversation or be distracted by other things that require your attention. Plan to have adequate time to clearly explain what is going on and address any questions they may have. Kids often feel that they somehow caused their parent to be sick or brought their illness on, so it is important to discuss that they are not responsible. Also, many kids think that cancer is contagious and can be passed like the flu, let them know that this not true and reassure them that no one else is sick.
Addressing the impact that the diagnosis will have on the whole family can be useful. Children like routines, when they get thrown off it can be confusing and scary. If there are going to be changes in their schedules, be sure to discuss how this will affect them. It may also be helpful to identify other adults in their lives who may be available to help out while you are undergoing treatment such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.
Remember, by the time you have this discussion with your children, you have likely had time to sit with the information; they are just hearing it for the first time. It may take time for your children to process their questions and concerns so it is important that you create an open dialogue about your cancer. One option, is to continually check in and revisit the conversation. Being open and non secretive will help to create a trusting safe environment for your children’s emotions and fears to be processed.
Do not be afraid to seek out professional assistance. A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelmingly scary and intense. You and your kids may benefit from meeting with a counselor who can help the family process and discuss what is going on. Trained professionals can also help with age appropriate explanations and address specific concerns you and your family may have. Asking for help can be difficult but it may be the most valuable thing you do.