Talking to Kids About Cancer

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In the midst of a crisis adults may forget that:

  • Children have real feelings.
  • Children understand the world in a real way, though it may be different than an adult’s understanding.
  • Children can feel left out.

Children should be told because:

  • Children naturally know when something changes.
  • When you are diagnosed with cancer, it changes everyone's life in a big way.
  • Children have a great imagination. They can imagine the worst, and it can be worse than reality.
  • Children may learn about your condition from someone else.
  • Getting information about your cancer from someone else can be scary, hurtful, and possibly incorrect. It can break the trust they have in you.
  • Children may feel alone and left out. Children need to know they are part of the family.  Even if they don't understand everything, being part of the discussions and decisions makes them feel worthwhile and included.
  • Children can comfort you. Your children will have ways to help you. They can give you comfort if they know what is happening and what you may need from them.
  • Children can handle difficult situations. The truth can cause many different feelings. Expressing feelings is how we deal with very difficult situations.  Children, sometimes better than adults, are able to do that.
  • Children can misunderstand what they see or do. For example, a child may do something wrong or hurtful to a parent.  If the parent gets sick the next day, the child my think she has caused the illness.

Who, What, When and How

Who should tell them?

  • You should.
  • If not you, then someone your children trust.
  • Share your feelings.
  • It's ok to cry.

When should we tell them?

  • As soon as you know something.
  • Keep the facts simple but clear.
  • Don't confuse the information with unnecessary facts.
  • Share what is going to happen as you go through treatment.
  • Answer your children's questions and concerns any time they come up.

How should we tell them?

  • Talk at the level of your children's understanding.
  • Practice what you are going to say.
  • Make time, don't rush.
  • Be open to questions.

What should we tell them?

  • Tell them what has happened.
  • Explain what will happen next.
  • Leave them with feelings of hope that even though you are upset now, there will be better times.
  • Assure them they will still be loved and cared for.
  • Listen to them. It lets you know what they can cope with.
  • Answer their questions simply.
  • Ask them what they think cancer is.
  • Ask them if they are worried about you.
  • Correct any misunderstandings they may have.