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How Do I Talk to My Kids about Cancer?

by Bonnie Indeck, LCSW

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If you’re facing the challenge of parenting with cancer, you’re not alone – more than 1.5 million cancer survivors have children under the age of 18. Facing a cancer diagnosis can be difficult, but talking with your children about it may seem equally challenging.

Should I tell?
Your children should hear the news of your cancer diagnosis from you, not overhear it from a neighbor or friend. Being honest and open lets your children know that you trust them and gives them permission to talk with you and ask you questions. Let them know that it’s OK to tell you what they are feeling or thinking.

You don’t have to answer all of their questions right away. Tell them that you need to think about it and will get back to them. And then do just that.

How do I tell?
Arrange for a day when you have plenty of time. Don’t rush the conversation, and make sure you can spend some time with your children after giving them the news. Keep in mind it may be easier for your children to talk when riding in a car or playing a game.

Author of Article photo

Bonnie Indeck

Children take their cues from their parents. If you act in a confident manner, they will too. If you are worried, anxious, or overly tearful, they may mimic what they see. Tell your children ageappropriate truths, and respond to their questions in an honest manner. If possible, let them know that you believe you will be OK and that you will get through this as a family.

It’s important to keep your children’s routine as normal as possible and to reassure them that they will be taken care of during your treatment. Be specific: “You will continue to go to Cub Scout meetings” or “Grandma will be picking you up from the bus in the afternoon.” This will help your children feel secure.

Who else should I tell?
You might want to consider informing your children’s school about what’s happening at home. Make sure that the principal, your children’s teachers, and the school social worker, psychologist, or guidance counselor are aware. This will allow them to keep their eye on your children and give them extra support or reach out to them if needed. Keep them updated as your treatment needs and schedule change.

Enlist the help of friends and family. While it’s not always easy to accept help, it will make them feel good and help you out at the same time. If they offer, allow your friends and family members to bring dinner, go shopping, or help clean so you can spend more of your energy with your children.

What else may help?
Sometimes having your children visit you in your treatment surroundings can be helpful to them, as they can worry about the unknown, which is often worse than the reality of the situation. Talk with your healthcare team to find out the best time for children to visit, whether in the hospital or in the outpatient setting. Prepare your children by letting them know what to expect. Describe the room and explain what they may see. The duration of the visit should be based on the children’s ages. It is helpful to have another adult there who can take them home or talk with them after the visit if they have any worries.

How do I know if my children are coping well?
If you have any questions or concerns, talk with your doctor or nurse. You can also request to see the hospital social worker, who is trained to assess how well your children are doing and determine if they need some extra guidance. Take some time to do what you get pleasure from, even if for only a few minutes a day. Your children can sense your emotional state and will feel better knowing you are feeling good. Be with your children when you are able, play with them, read to them, and enjoy spending time with them.

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Bonnie Indeck has been working with cancer survivors and their families for more than 30 years. She is the manager of Oncology Social Work at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven and the psychosocial coordinator for Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, CT.

For additional resources for parenting with cancer, visit the website for the Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT) program at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, medicine.yale.edu/cancer/patient/support/pact.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.