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.

  • They will sense it. Kids of all ages are highly observant and will notice something is wrong. It’s likely that their imagination will come up with an even more frightening scenario than what’s true. Speaking with them yourself will give you the opportunity to present a more accurate (potentially more positive) framework.
  • It may feel taboo. It’s also probable that, whether from you or someone else, your child will learn about the situation. If you haven’t yet discussed your illness with them, it will seem like a secret that you must protect them from, in effect making them more afraid.
  • Trust could be lost. Similarly, not talking openly with your children may hinder their trust in what you say and in your ability to help both yourself and them cope.

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.

  • Do you feel prepared? Instead of going into such a delicate conversation cold, it may help to write down the points you want to cover, ensuring you can be most attentive to how your kids respond. You could also try practicing with your partner, a friend, or your doctor. Furthermore, you can’t anticipate all of your child’s reactions and questions. Know that it’s okay to not have an answer for everything. It’s okay to admit to them that you don’t know something, but that you’ll let them know when you find out.
  • How are you doing? After spending all your mental energy on thinking about your children, it’s easy to overlook how you may be feeling. While you shouldn’t hide all your emotions from your kids, it’s best to avoid starting this conversation if you’re feeling physically or mentally exhausted, rushed, or particularly despondent or unwell.
  • How are your children doing? Similarly, try not to start the discussion if your children are tired or unusually busy. This is not to imply that the first conversation needs to be long, but this will allow room for it to unfold in a more natural, comfortable way.

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.

  • Be honest. When it comes to the facts about your illness, it’s best to be as clear and honest as possible. Don’t avoid the word “cancer” and show them where and how it may affect your body. Discuss your treatment and what may happen to you physically. Explain how it’s not contagious, what kinds of things may cause it, and how we don’t yet know everything about it. Explain how they can expect your daily and long-term lives to change.
  • Be positive. Depending on your circumstances, you might share positive or hopeful facts and anecdotes as much as possible, without completely ignoring potential realities. Explain how there are people working on new cancer treatments, and tie this into your own treatment and how you and your doctor will do everything you can to get you better. If death is mentioned, you might say, “people do die from cancer, but many don’t.”
  • Be encouraging. Invite your children to ask questions and share what they know about cancer. Encourage them to express their feelings, and let them know that there are no wrong feelings to have and that their feelings may change from moment to moment. Don’t be afraid to explain that you have many feelings too, or to show your own emotions, so long as you feel you can maintain a sense of calm reassurance.

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.