When it comes to talking to kids about cancer, you might feel very uneasy thinking about what you should and can say without scaring them. Consider their age when deciding what to say and how much to disclose.
When I told my kids about my stage two breast cancer diagnosis, they were older teenagers who knew of the disease. One of them was still living at home and in high school, so he was definitely going to see me recovering from surgeries, as well as losing my hair from chemotherapy. He was also going to be affected whenever I wasn’t well enough or available to drive him to school and baseball practice. My doctor appointments and daily radiation treatments also consumed the time and attention of his dad, which impacted him as well.
But what I told my teenagers is very different from what you might tell a toddler, a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old or a 14-year-old. No matter what, all kids need to know some basic information, such as the name and location of the cancer. You’ll also want to very basically describe to your kids what kind of treatment and side effects you may experience, so they are not shocked if you are nauseous, lose your hair, have a permanent port inserted in your chest, see that you are attached to a portable chemo pump or have to wear a colostomy bag.
Myths your child may believe about cancer
To help in talking to kids about cancer, the American Cancer Society advises that kids at any age might have the same myths circling in their heads, so it’s a good idea to tackle these during your conversation. Children may mistakenly think their bad behavior or bad thoughts could somehow cause you to get cancer, and even though we know this isn’t true, it’s a very real fear children have. Assure them that they did not do anything to cause your cancer — even if they don’t mention any such fears.
Also make sure they know that cancer is not caught by kissing or hugging someone (like a cold or the flu), so they don’t need to be afraid of you, even if you look different or sick, or are not feeling well. Most importantly, let them know that someone will always be there for them. Kids need to know their parents, other family members and friends will still be there to take care of them and make sure their life runs as smoothly as possible. Definitely make arrangements with family and friends to get them to regular activities, even for bath and story time at night, and tell them who might be stepping into their lives. This way, they know they’ll be loved and cared for while you are going through treatment.
Tips for talking to kids about cancer from the trenches
In her blog on living with metastatic breast cancer, Lisa B. Adams writes, “Secrecy is bad.” In a post about telling her then-14-year-old daughter her breast cancer had returned, she talks about how hard it was for her to initiate the conversation, but also about how much better she felt afterwards.
Adams recommends finding the right time for a talk, as she describes a seemingly commonplace car ride in her post about talking with her then-6-year-old son about having the surgery to place the port by which she would receive her chemotherapy, and what it would look like. I agree with her that several conversations are helpful, and that it’s good to ask kids at another time if they have any questions about what you discussed.
I always asked my kids what they thought about what was going on during different stages of treatment and let them take the lead. I think it’s important not to keep kids away. Let them know beforehand that they may see you sick in bed more often, recovering from surgeries or chemo and radiation treatments. Also warn them about possibly losing your hair, and any other physical differences specific to your type of cancer and treatment. One daughter wanted to help me choose head scarfs, and my son offered to drive and go grocery shopping with me when I couldn’t drive myself — both of which I desperately welcomed. These good deeds also helped them feel needed and connected.
If you’re really at a loss for words, look for a suitable age-appropriate children’s book from the American Cancer Society book list. Making the conversations suitable for your child’s age is important, but only you know how to speak most lovingly to your child about your cancer.