Child Health, Family Health, Your Health Lindsay Guinaugh | 7 years ago

How to Tell Your Child You Have Cancer

Learning you have cancer can trigger an overwhelming roller coaster of emotions. But one of the hardest things you may struggle with is telling your child about the diagnosis. The following tips can help you prepare for the conversation and share the news with care and compassion:

Prepare Yourself

Work through your emotions before you meet with your child. Talk with your spouse or other adult family members about how, when and where you want to convey the news.

Choose the Right Time and Place

“Before your start the conversation, make sure you have all the facts yourself,” said Adrian Thornburg, LPC, Oncology Support Counselor with Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Cancer Institute. Thornburg suggests waiting until you have definitive information about your illness and the treatment from your doctor, but don’t wait too long. “Choose a quiet time when you know you won’t be interrupted and the children won’t be distracted,” said Thornburg.

Be Mindful of the Child’s Age

“Tell your child about your diagnosis in a way they understand,” said Thornburg. “This varies by age group and the approach to the conversation should be age appropriate.” Preschool age children and younger don’t need many details and the conversation should be kept simple. You may want to use a doll or other visual to help them understand where the cancer is located in your body. School-age children and teens need more facts and tend to react to the news with more anger, fear  and anxiety than smaller children.

What to Say and How to Say It

“Don’t wait too long to have the conversation,” said Thornburg. “You certainly don’t want them to overhear the news on one of your phone conversations or directly from someone else, so be sure it’s coming from you. Children instinctively can detect when something is wrong. Tell them as soon as you are ready – within days of the diagnosis if you can.”

Thornburg offers the following points to keep in mind for the conversation:

• Tell your children the basics about your cancer, including the name (i.e. breast or lung cancer), where it is in your body, how it will be treated and how it will impact the family and your everyday lives. • Teach them some basic terms about cancer and the treatment, like “chemotherapy,” “tumor” and the word “cancer” itself. Don’t use euphemisms like “boo boo” to describe the cancer: those common terms have been found to cause confusion and anxiety in children. • Give them details about how your illness will impact their lives: who will pick them up from school if mommy is in treatment? Who will take them to baseball practice if daddy is sick? “Children thrive on routine so it’s important to let them know in advance how their routine will be affected,” said Thornburg. • Answer questions. “Children are inquisitive so prepare yourself for difficult questions from your child, including ‘Why did you get cancer?’ or ‘Are you going to die?’,” said Thornburg. “Be honest in your responses and if you don’t know the answer, say so.” • Remind them that they are loved and that the cancer is not their fault. “Younger children especially may have these concerns,” said Thornburg. “Reassure all children that while this is a difficult situation, the whole family should stay positive and be supportive of each other.” • Remind them that cancer is not contagious and they won’t get it by touching, hugging or kissing you. • Keep talking when appropriate. You may need to have these conversations more than once to reassure your children or expand on things they don’t understand. • Seek help if you need it. If it appears that your child is not coping well with the news of your diagnosis, contact your pediatrician. He or she can refer you to a child psychologist or family therapist who can provide coping strategies.