< Return to Articles

Talk to Your Kids About Cancer

by Linda Bewley, outreach coordinator

“You have cancer,” are three words that will turn your world upside down. The moment that diagnosis is given your life changes. Will I live or die? What sort of treatment will I have to have? How sick will I be? How will I care for my family These are just some of the questions that instantly come to mind.

It is a time of huge change, uncertainty and fear. For most of us, sitting down to talk to our kids is not the first thing we think of when we receive this diagnosis. And, when we do think of it, the idea of sitting with our children and trying to make sense out of a disease that we do not understand and are petrified of is intimidating. We are scared—do we dare show this fear to our children who look at us as invincible?

We often assume, incorrectly, that children are too young or too self-absorbed (in the case of tweens and teens) to be overly affected by this diagnosis. WRONG! Children always know—maybe not all, but they do know something has happened and they are immediately affected. Being honest at this time can be painful for you, but telling them from the beginning will allow them to become part of your team.

Speaking from experience, these little people need to be considered right from the get-go. Children are very tuned in to family issues even if they do not make it apparent. They need to be included in this life altering crisis, because it does affect them directly. If they are not, the consequences will come out, usually in a negative way. By letting them become part of your team, they can feel useful by participating in age appropriate actions.

My daughter (6) had her friends help her make a huge welcome home sign and she made me get well cards on a regular basis (which I still have today). My son (10) helped do chores around the house when I was just too tired. Both children suffered from fear at first because I tried to protect them from this family crisis. Once I was honest with them, all of us were able to function as a team and reestablish the bond of trust that had been broken. Let your children be there for you as you are for them.

Communication is the key, no matter what the age. Children have the right to know what is going on. That knowledge is their right and also their greatest need. Always be open and honest and encourage them to ask questions. Trying to protect your children from the unpleasant truths will only make them distrustful. The most important thing at this time is for them to trust the two most important people in their lives—the parent that is sick and the parent that is there to continue to care for them.

Following is a list of books that might prove helpful if you find yourself in this situation:

Can I Still Kiss you? By Neil Russell; How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness, by Kathleen McCue; Mira’s Month, by Deborah Weinstein-Stern; Vanishing Cookies, by Dr. Michelle B. Goodman; internet article entitled “Teen Views: How to Cope with a Sick Parent”, by Virginia Allen