Monday, March 29, 2010

To Tell or Not to Tell: Talking to Kids About Cancer

Being diagnosed with cancer brings a whirlwind of questions and concerns. Along with the stressors of your (or your spouse’s) diagnosis, you have to figure out what to tell your kids. How much is enough? How much is too much? How do we answer questions that we don’t even know the answers to?

Parents often feel an obligation to protect their children from this painful issue. However, keeping kids in the dark is not the best approach. It is important to realize that your children will be aware that something is going on. They will sense the stress, they may hear bits of conversations, or someone else may say something to them. When no information is shared with children, they often make their own assumptions, which are often inaccurate and very scary for them. They also may feel that they are not valued enough to be included in the conversations. When they are told, it is best that the information comes from you, keeping in mind that things need to be explained in an age-appropriate manner. To younger children you may say, “Mommy is sick and will be going to the doctor a lot,” or “The medicine will make mommy’s hair fall out, but it will come back.” Older children and teens can handle more details, though it is still not necessary for them to be told everything. The important thing is to let them know that they can talk about it and ask questions. They will find security in normalcy and routine, so keep as many things the same as possible, including discipline and responsibilities in the home. Because there are sure to be some changes in their routine, enlist friends and family to help out.

Children tend to cope better when there is a “team approach.” Let them know you are all in it together, and you need each other’s help to get through it. It’s OK for your kids to see you cry and to know you are afraid, but then they need that reassurance that they are going to be ok and that you are going to do all that you can to get better. Assure them that it was not their fault, that they did not cause the cancer, and that it is not contagious.

What about when they ask those tough questions? Be as honest as you can and assure them that you will tell them when there is something important to tell. Then be sure you follow through. The dreaded question of “Are you going to die?” is often asked by children. A good response to this is, “Not everyone who has cancer dies, and I am getting the best treatment the doctors can give me.” If, of course, a parent is not going to be doing anymore treatment the conversation needs to be more focused on preparing the child for what to expect. It is also good to have a close friend or relative whom the child trusts available to talk to them. Sometimes it is easier for children to say or ask difficult things to someone besides their parents. School or church counselors are good options as well.

A great resource for this topic is Cancer in the Family, by Heiney, Hermann, Bruss & Fincannon, published by the American Cancer Society 2001.

How have you handled this touchy situation? What approach has worked best for you? Please share!

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Welcome to the Buddy Kemp blog! It's a busy world out there, and we understand that - with things like chemo, radiation, surgery and life in general - sometimes there simply aren't enough hours in a day to meet in person to talk about how cancer is impacting your life. Our hope is that the words on this page will provide you with thought-provoking support and dialogue while journeying through cancer treatment and beyond. We look forward to starting a conversation with you!