Telling our children that Alan had cancer was one of the most difficult things Alan and I EVER had to do. At the time, our children were ages 10, 8 and 5. We knew that our older two kids would know enough about cancer to wonder if Daddy was going to die. And our youngest would be smart enough to watch the reactions of his siblings to see if this was something he should worry about. Knowing this dynamic, we decided to do some research and speak to several experts before having “the talk” with our kids. So, how do you really tell your children that one of the most important people in their lives has cancer?
Give them the lowdown
This situation has a name and it’s called cancer. Use the word “cancer” when describing your illness. The amount of detail you give and the specific words you use will depend on the age of your children. If you are talking to children of different ages at the same time (which is what we did), speak in terms that the youngest one will understand. You can always have additional conversations with the older children if necessary.
Although Alan and I were tempted to downplay the seriousness of this situation, we also knew this could damage the trust we had worked so hard to build over the years. Throughout the entire process, we were honest, yet optimistic, which actually brought the kids tremendous comfort.
Make no promises or guarantees about the outcome
We all want to promise our children that we will never die. But this is not realistic, nor is this a promise we can keep. We told our kids that we believed Daddy would be healthy again… and that our doctors were doing everything they could to get the cancer out of his body. But that was all we could promise.
Cancer isn’t contagious
I was shocked to learn some of the myths my kids had heard about cancer. Did Daddy catch it from someone? Did he do something to cause the cancer? Since Daddy had cancer, did that mean they were going to get it too? Set the facts straight.
Good news travels fast-Bad news travels faster
It’s important to let the parents of your children’s friends and school teachers know what’s going on. You should also assume that any email you send out, post you write on a personal blog or conversation you have will be forwarded or repeated to the world. Let’s face it… people are concerned about you, so they talk about it. Just as with any story, all the facts may not be repeated in a manner you approve. So, be careful what you put out there. On several occasions, our kids came home asking questions because they had overheard others talking about our “situation.” One other piece of advice: If there is news to share — either positive or negative — tell it to your children first.
Kids tend to do better when they know what to expect. Discuss the likely side-effects of your particular treatments (hair loss, nausea, fatigue) and how it will affect them. For us, this meant that Daddy may not be at all of their sporting events or that he might not be able to tuck them in every night. It also meant that other family members would be living with us at times to help out.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to tell your children everything at once. If it appears that your child is not coping well, get help. Many cancer centers and local support groups have therapists on staff who can advise you. Additionally, your pediatrician may be able to recommend a child psychologist or family therapist who has experience in helping children cope with cancer.
TellingKidsAboutCancer.com is also a super resource that offers step-by-step suggestions and advice on this very subject. On this site, you can listen to interviews from other parents and children about their experiences with cancer. You can also read more about the wide variety of available cancer support services to help your family cope.
Remember, a diagnosis of cancer affects everyone in the family. Your children may ask questions right away or they may need time to digest what you’ve told them. Let your children know you are there for them. Reassure them of your love. And move forward one step at a time.