A cancer diagnosis is devastating, but many cancer patients will tell you that as traumatic as it was to hear those words, having to relay them to loved ones, especially children, is an equally painful experience.
Here are some thoughts on how to do that as gently and appropriately as possible, with the one constant, regardless of the age or lifestage of your kids, being the recommendation to remain as honest as possible.
Prepare yourself beforehand. While gathering the information you need to try and make sense of your own situation, think about the kind of things your child may ask you. Think about the answers you can give without becoming too emotional – plan your words and phrases.
Only give as much information as they can handle. Be honest if there are questions you can’t answer yet. Younger children may need reassurance that your doctors are very experienced in dealing with your condition. Older children may want to come with you to meet your doctor, or sit in on chemotherapy or radiation sessions.
Prepare your children for the changes which may occur to your body. Reassure them that you are still you and, if you’re comfortable to, allow them access to scrutinise your scars. However, respect that older children may not want to see your body post-surgeries. Younger children are as notoriously curious as teenagers are squeamish!
Different ages may need different reassurances. Smaller children may need to know that cancer is not contagious. While teenagers may prefer to research their own questions (see some recommended links below).
Ensure all role-players have the same information. School teachers, grandparents, your child’s best friend’s parents and other people they spend time with should be kept informed of what you’re telling your children, and if there’s anything you may be choosing not to share yet. Check in with your children on what other conversations they may be having, or independent research they may be doing about your condition, so that you can correct misinformation or answer questions.
Maintain your routine as much as possible. For smaller kids this means their daily lives of pre-school, bed time etc – for older children this might be regular movie nights or family brunch out.
Keep talking, and asking how they’re doing. Children of all ages may feel they need to bottle their own feelings to accommodate yours, keep the channels of communication open. But respect that your children are still going through their natural developmental phases regardless of your condition. Sometimes they may prefer to just talk about Pokemon cards, or spend time alone in their rooms listening to music – this doesn’t necessarily mean they are avoiding what is going on in your family.
How do you talk about cancer with your kids?
For older children and self research – books such as My Parent Has Cancer and it Really Sucks (link: http://www.kalahari.com/books/My-Parent-Has-Cancer-and-It-Really-Sucks/632/46206010.aspx), and online: – http://www.myparentscancer.com.au/index.html
Locally, the GVI Practice Oncology social workers have developed a workbook for children aged 6 – 12 that parents can do with their child as a tool to facilitate the conversation around cancer. This can be requested from Linda Greeff, Oncology Social Work Services Manager Tel: 021 949 4060.
And a really lovely book for younger children, Mom and the Polka Dot Boo-Boo (link: http://www.kalahari.com/books/Mom-and-the-Polka-Dot-Boo-Boo/632/30665172.aspx)
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