A cancer diagnosis is hard to accept. It may feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but for many people, the burden is not theirs to carry alone. Loved ones, especially children, often feel the full weight of their family member’s diagnosis. Carefully explaining the situation and how it will affect their lives can help alleviate some of the fears that children may have when learning that their parent has cancer.
Before the Talk
Although there is no easy way to tell your children that you are sick, professionals suggest that kids need to hear at least some basic information concerning a parent’s cancer diagnosis. Before talking with your children it’s important to think about how you are going to tell them that you have cancer, and come up with any examples you may want to use to help paint a clear picture of what it means.
“I think for parents it’s a judgment call as to when and how and where you tell your kids,” said Michael Becker, a former oncology biotech CEO who recently had to tell his 2 teenage daughters that he has terminal (stage IV) oropharyngeal cancer.
During the Talk
For Michael and his family, it helped to use an analogy to convey the severity of the situation.
“You’ve seen this movie before, and you know how it ends, and you know it doesn’t have a happy ending,” Michael said, as a way to start the conversation with his daughters about his prognosis.
“Our girls are older, my oldest is 19 and my youngest is 16 and a half, so they’re both at a point in their lives where we felt that being transparent and being very honest about the situation was the right approach, that they were old enough to handle the information and digest it,” Michael told CONQUER.
People with cancer who have younger children may need to handle the situation in a different way, and address certain questions that an older child wouldn’t have.
Younger children may believe that they did something to cause the cancer, and feel guilty that their mom or dad got sick because they were angry with them.
It’s important for the parent to discuss these areas even if the child doesn’t bring it up, because, as the American Cancer Society suggests, most children won’t tell their parents about the guilt they are feeling. Reassuring the child that someone cannot cause another person to get cancer, and that cancer is not something that anyone caused, is an important step in telling children that you have cancer.
It is also important to tell children that cancer is not contagious, and just because one parent has cancer doesn’t mean the other parent, or anyone else in the family, will get it as well.
After the Talk
In most cases, cancer is not something that can be hidden from children, so if you don’t disclose enough information, or lie to them, there is a chance it may affect the relationship in the future.
“No matter what their age, no matter how much you try to describe the situation, at the end of the day they’re going to see the physical impact of the disease, whether it’s the disease itself or the treatments that you’re undergoing,” Michael says.
“Had we not had the open conversations that we did with my daughters, they would have seen the physical changes, the loss of body weight, the fatigue, the inability to do some of the normal activities that they were used to. Not being able to eat or go out to dinner the way we used to, all of that. They would have come across eventually without us saying anything.”
Michael and his wife thought the best way to counter this was to be upfront from the beginning. That way they were able to assuage some of their daughters’ fears.
“I guess we viewed it as if you aren’t perfectly honest, then they start to worry that you’re deceiving them, or that you’re trying to sugarcoat it, and then all bets are off, and they don’t believe anything that you’re saying,” he said.
Another new wrinkle that many parents face when talking with their children about a cancer diagnosis is the access they have to the Internet. If a parent discloses only limited information about their cancer, a kid may turn to Google to fill in the blanks, and the information they learn online may not be correct or accurate. It is important to be there for your child after telling them about your diagnosis, so they feel comfortable coming to you with questions rather than trusting what they read online.
In addition, it helps to have someone outside the immediate family that the child can confide in. Michael and his family see a therapist who helps to facilitate discussions.
Everyone is going to handle the situation in their own way, so having a neutral professional to help navigate the way is beneficial. A therapist can help explain some coping mechanisms that children use during difficult situations that may seem alarming to their parents.
For example, Michael’s daughters are coping by using denial, which their therapist says is completely normal.
“They have chosen the route of denial—dad’s going to be fine, treatment is going to work, this is all going to be a bad dream. They don’t want anything to do with going to [treatment] and being there when I’m receiving my therapy,” he said. “They really don’t want to hear about it, and it’s not because they’re cold or careless, it’s just they’re living in their little bubble and for them, that’s how they’re coping.”
By providing age-appropriate, honest information, and offering to answer any questions, children can learn to cope as their parent navigates a cancer diagnosis.
- Parents dealing with a cancer diagnosis should give their children the tools and resources they need to deal with it
- Being truthful and transparent about your cancer diagnosis helps gain a child’s trust and assuages his or her inevitable fears and questions