Cameron and Lily

Talking about cancer is never easy, but talking about cancer with your children may be one of the most difficult conversations to think about having. It’s one of those things no parent plans on having to deal with.

Following a cancer diagnosis, parents are most concerned about how their illness and treatment side effects will affect their children, both day-to-day and in the long-term. What’s the best way to approach such a sensitive, emotional subject?

First, you must remember that there are no hard and fast rules about what’s right or wrong. Every family will find their own way to adjust.

In our own experience, our daughter Lily doesn't know life without the battle her mother went through. All she knows is life as it is with Heather flying to Boston for check-ups and seeing other doctors. It is just part of our everyday life. That’s not to say Heather’s cancer doesn't affect Lily; she gets worried when it’s time for scans, but we always make it a priority to talk about how she’s feeling and reassure her that we’re staying on top of things.

At a recent Stupid Cancer meetup, we found out about an incredible resource for kids whose parents have cancer called Camp Kesem. It is specifically geared to help kids with the roller coaster of emotions that come from having a parent with cancer. Cancer can be so isolating, and having peer support is so important no matter your age.

We’ve gathered firsthand advice from affected families and experienced physicians in the interest of illustrating a series of considerations and a variety of helpful ways to address the why, when, and how of communicating a cancer diagnosis with your children.

Why?

Immediately after a diagnosis, many parents may struggle with the decision whether or not to talk to their children about it at all, thinking that they will place an unnecessary burden on them. However, affected families and physicians agree, it’s best to let your children know as soon as you deem appropriate for a variety of reasons.

When?

For some parents, they quickly decide they will discuss their diagnosis with their kids as soon as possible to avoid causing any confused feelings. For others, it’s important that they thoroughly understand their own illness and treatment plan before sitting down with their children, or they wish to wait until their kids are just a bit older. With whichever option ultimately suits your family best, there are some pre-talk questions to ask yourself that will help determine when the “right” time may be.

How?

After deciding that you will and when you’re going to talk to your children about your cancer diagnosis, you may still feel like you aren’t ready, or lost when it comes to how to even begin, no matter how much you’ve “prepared.” If your children are of varying ages, you may decide to tell them individually so you can take individualized approaches. Again, while there are truly no rights or wrongs, there are many well-informed recommendations that can help you find somewhere to start and where to go.

However you and your family decide to approach communicating your diagnosis with your children, keep in mind that you don’t need to fit everything in one long, heavy conversation. In fact, depending on their attention spans, level of understanding, and what they may or may not contribute, it may be best to divide the discussion into a series of mini talks. The most important thing is that you establish an open, honest dialogue with your children and that they know they will never be in this alone.