Tips for Talking with Kids About Cancer
If we lived in a perfect world, I wouldn't have to share this post -- and no parent would ever have to talk to their child about cancer. Whether you or your partner or a grandparent or another loved one is facing a new cancer diagnosis, your child will have questions. My two sons were too small to understand what was going on when their grandma, my mom, had breast cancer, so I didn't have to deal with some of the "whys" and other questions. Since then, sadly, we've had other family members and friends fight cancer, and I've fumbled through discussions. I'm now happy to have found Holly at The Coconut Head's Cancer Survival Guide.
Recently she tackled the topic of talking with kids about cancer. She shares how they approached the difficult topic with her stepson:
Stepson was 7 when I was diagnosed. We used clinical words like cancer and chemo and talked about it like we would the weather. We were very open, honest, and straight forward with him, all while being age (and gender) appropriate. What we did not share with him… when I had surgery, we told him that it was on my side (not my breast). And “technically”, that is where my stitches are. We said that cancer was not contagious, it was like a broken arm. We explained that chemo would kill good cells (like my hair) along with the bad cells and the cancer.
We told him that I would lose my hair and be very sick and tired for awhile. He could not have been kinder and sat by my side watching SpongeBob cartoons together with the promise that they would make me feel better.
If you're facing a diagnosis, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute also has a great resource for talking with kids about cancer. My favorite tip from their informative list is this one:
You don't need to follow a script
Talk as naturally as possible, and invite your children to ask questions early on.
In case you were considering not telling a child about a cancer diagnosis, the American Cancer Society points out that "cancer is an impossible secret to keep." Even when you think kids aren't listening, they are. Other people talk (read: gossip). And then there are the physical aspects of treatment. Talking about it provides a safe place for your child.
One final tip, coming from my personal experience of discussing "the big stuff" with kids: Kids understand far more than we give them credit. Give them age-appropriate information and let them know that they can ask you anything at any time. You'll be surprised what they ask, what they understand.
If you've been through a cancer diagnosis as a parent, how did you discuss the topic with your kids? Finish reading Holly's post and let us know if you have any other tips that might help kids deal with the news, whether it's an immediate family member, a grandparent, or even a family friend.