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How to Talk to Your Kids about Cancer

by Peter R. van Dernoot, BS

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While running a public relations firm in Denver, CO, and working for a multi-hospital organization, I was introduced to a support program that one hospital had started three years earlier for children ages six to sixteen whose parents had cancer. The merit was overwhelming. Here, in the safe and fun environment of a professional staff, the kids learned to cope with their anxiety, fears, anger, stress, and even, sometimes, guilt.

Clearly, this kind of program would have been helpful to my kids years earlier when their mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. It took three years, but in 2001, with Avon Foundation funding, The Children’s Treehouse Foundation began with a straightforward mission: To ensure that every child whose parent is diagnosed with cancer is given early tools and emotional support to cope.

Today, more than 50 cancer centers are benefiting from our special support program, CLIMB® – Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery. From the experience of oncology professionals and families, we’ve distilled a few basic concepts to help parents talk to their children about cancer:

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Peter van Dernoot

  • Most importantly, wait to talk with your children until you can do so unemotionally. Your fears and tears will only enhance their anxiety and fear of loss.
  • Provide honest, open, ongoing conversation – it can help your children develop healthy, adaptive behavior toward your cancer.
  • Send the message that you’re doing everything possible to win the cancer battle and that your love and caring for them continues unabated.
  • Encourage your children to express their thoughts and concerns. Young children may choose to make drawings; older children may wish to write.
  • Expect to repeat elements of your discussion with your children. Just as adults do not satisfactorily process information in a crisis, children need to hear explanations repeated.
  • Inform other adults who are in frequent contact with your children of your situation, especially teachers, coaches, and Scout leaders. Although your children may appear to be “toughing it out” when they are not with you, these key adults can do a lot to lessen the pain by listening to them, encouraging them, and simply being a friend and protector.
  • Try to preserve the children’s basic routines (soccer games, school activities, bedtimes), which will help them maintain a level of emotional normalcy.
  • Involve your children in appropriate activities, such as meetings with your doctor and shopping for wigs, if they show a readiness.
  • Find age-appropriate children’s support groups. It is beneficial for them to learn that their situation is not unique. Other kids also have parents with cancer. Moreover, the professionals on staff and other children will help your children to “open up” and express their concerns.

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Peter van Dernoot is the founder and executive director of The Children’s Treehouse Foundation, which provides programming for cancer centers to support children of parents with cancer.

Visit ChildrensTreehouseFDN.org for more information about The Children’s Treehouse Foundation and CLIMB®.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2009.