Mum, Dad? What's cancer?
August 2, 2013
As a mother, I can't imagine being diagnosed with cancer and having to tell my children. People with cancer often say that talking to their kids or grandkids is one of the most difficult and overwhelming things they have to face. Here is a quick summary of some of the best advice I've heard over the years working in support services at Cancer Council.
Deciding to talk about it
Many people say that their first reaction is to keep the cancer secret or delay talking about it with their kids. However, research shows that being open and honest with young people is the best way to help them cope with a cancer diagnosis of someone close to them.
I know from my own experience that kids are very observant - especially when you are trying to hide or play down something! No matter how hard you try to shield your children from a cancer diagnosis, most children will suspect something is wrong. It might be a difficult conversation to have, but it's important they hear about it from you, rather than someone else.
Tailoring your approach
It can be hard to know how much information to share, and how to reassure children at a time when you're feeling uncertain and scared yourself.
Young people's ability to understand illness will depend on their age and level of maturity, so it's important to tailor your approach depending on the age and maturity of your child. These tips may be helpful:
Young children (aged 3-5) - The most important thing is to keep your explanations simple and brief. Engage with the child in a way they understand - for example, by reading picture books or playing with dolls, stuffed animals or toys. Reassure the child that they haven't caused the illness and can't catch it from you. You can also assure them that they won't be forgotten - they will always be loved and taken care of, no matter what.
Older primary school aged children (aged 6-12) - Children this age may have heard about cancer, in the playground or from the media, so it's a good idea to provide simple explanations of cancer e.g. basic details about bad, abnormal cells. This can help clear up any misunderstandings. Children may also feel very worried, so let them know that other relatives are healthy, and that you will tell them what's happening. Be prepared for the child to ask lots of questions and answer them honestly.
Teenagers (aged 13-18) - Teenagers are starting to think more like adults, even though at times, they can behave immaturely! You can usually talk frankly to a teenager about cancer and provide scientific explanations. Teenagers may be worried about role changes or extra responsibilities at home, so encourage them to be open about their concerns. However, be aware that teens highly value friendships with their peers, so they may choose to confide in friends instead. This isn't anything personal and is a natural way for them to cope.
You know your kids best
Remember that you know your children best, so you can decide on the best approach based on their experiences, knowledge and maturity.
It might sound cliched, but my advice is to approach the conversation with an open heart. Even if you cry or show some emotion, it can show your kids that it's okay to share their feelings.
Good luck with it - and if you need any advice or guidance, call Cancer Council on 13 11 20. We're here to help.