So begins the advice of a parent and lymphoma caregiver. Coping with cancer and being a parent both are challenging tasks in their own respects. Doing both at the same time can be especially difficult, because there is no “one size fits all” way to approach telling your children that you have cancer. How each child reacts to this will depend on their age and their knowledge of cancer, but like living with cancer, there is no “one size fits all” experience.
Children are sensitive to changes in their parent’s behavior, even if they are too young to comprehend what is going on. A young child may blame themselves, thinking “I didn’t behave so mommy got sick.” They might develop separation anxiety or behavioral problems at school. It is also common to see a regression in behavior where a child may act younger than they are or they may act out themes that are illness-related during playtime.
In a survey conducted by the Cancer Support Community, as much as 66% of parents said they did not talk openly or share their feelings about cancer with their children. While it may seem like a good option to hide a diagnosis because you think it might upset them or that they are too young to understand, leaving children out of the diagnosis can create feelings of distress and isolation instead of avoiding them.
The Cancer Support Community recommends letting your child know these three points, regardless of their age:
Cancer is Not Your Fault
It is common for children to think cancer is their fault; however, they generally will not share this with others. By explaining that cancer is not their fault, you can help your child to feel less guilt and stress around the cancer diagnosis
Any Question Is Ok
Children may be afraid to ask questions if they have not been given permission. Let them know that any question is ok, and that you will do your best to have an answer. There may be times that you don’t know the answer, and that is okay too.
Cancer is Not Contagious
Many children think cancer is contagious and become fearful of hugging or kissing their family member. Let them know it’s ok to be close, and that they cannot catch cancer.
If chemotherapy is part of your current treatment, it is also important to have the discussion of why you are losing your hair. Cancer treatment can be very confusing to a child and they may also not understand why you are going to so many doctor appointments or why you are in and out of the hospital. This also ties into one of the hardest, but most crucial questions that you may or may not be asked but should be discussed: are you going to die? It is critical that the child knows there is a good support system behind them. One possible response could be, “People can die from cancer, but many people live. My doctors are doing everything they can to get rid of my cancer. That’s why I am at so many doctors’ appointments and have so many visits to the hospital. Right now they think that the medicine is working, but if that changes, I will let you know.” Be sure to keep that promise and let your child know if the situation does change.
Although every situation and every child is unique to each family, being honest and having open communication is the healthiest way to go about talking about cancer. Children should know its ok to talk, to ask questions, to cry and to help when they can. The more they are assured they are not alone in their feelings, the better off everyone will be.
For more tips on talking to your children about cancer order or download our free publication, Frankly Speaking About Cancer: What Do I Tell the Kids.