Last summer, I found myself having to explain cancer to my (then) 6
and 10 year old sons - I had been diagnosed with skin cancer. It was
a tough conversation to have, though certainly not as tough explaining
terminal cancer. My heart goes out to you and your family.
There really isn't any non-upsetting way to break such news to a
child, so it's best to just start with the truth. Tell the child what
kind of cancer it is, and that the outlook is not good, and be certain
to answer all of his/her questions honestly. Ten year-olds, while
still children, are bright enough to smell a snow-job, and typically
appreciate being dealt with in a straightforward manner.
A good place to start is the National Cancer Institute's pamphlet,
"When Someone In Your Family Has Cancer". The booklet details the
effects the illness can have on the family dynamic, and discusses ways
to cope. The booklet also offers good explanations of what cancer is,
the various treatments available, and very forthrightly explains that
even though treatments can help, people do still succumb to the
disease. It's well written and informative, and is in a format that
the average ten year-old will understand.
When Someone In Your Family Has Cancer
A tool I used to help discussion with my own children was BrainPop, an
educational service that uses animated movies to explain health topics
(among other things!) to children. Tim and his robot pal Moby discuss
what cancer is and how it grows in matter-of-fact, non-alarming terms:
BrainPop - Cancer
The UK's CancerBACUP series offers an organized list of how to start
the discussion and what details to share. The booklet advises gentle
honesty an a willingness to say "I don't know":
What do I tell the children? - A guide for a parent with cancer.
Although aimed primarily at explaining cancer to children who have
been diagnosed, the Cleveland Clinic's page can help develop how to
explain to a child that his parent has cancer. The article offers
ideas by age group that can help ease some of the burden of having
this difficult conversation:
Talking with Your Child About Cancer
The Johns Hopkins Oncology Center has assembled a page to help parents
talk to their children about cancer, including ways to start the
discussion, and a good list of kid-oriented sites and resources at the
bottom of the page. Of special interest may be KidsConnected, a site
founded on the idea that cancer in a parent affects the entire family:
Johns Hopkins Oncology Center
By Nuala OLeary, LGSW
Fairview-University Medical Center (Minneapolis, MN) offers a pamphlet
for explaining cancer to children, and includes a resource list:
What do my Children do Now that I Have Cancer?
Sharon Hanson writes about explaining her cancer diagnosis to her
"Much of the breast cancer literature concentrates on the disease, the
treatments, and the patient; however, after my diagnosis I discovered
my greatest concern was for my children. So if diagnosed with cancer,
how do you best inform your children?
The most important thing is to be as honest as you can. Becky
Wiskus, a social worker at St. Lukes Mountain States Tumor Institute
(MSTI) identified honesty and communication as the main tools to
navigate a family through the murky waters of a cancer diagnosis. One
of the myths about a cancer diagnosis is that by discussing cancer, we
are instilling fear. The fear is already there, Wiskus clarified.
Openly talking about cancer helps to demystify it.
With a cancer diagnosis comes volumes of information about the disease
and the treatments. Reflecting back on how I handled a cancer
discussion, both of my boys suggested that parents not cover all of
the information in one sitting, overwhelming the child. Wait until
your child asks a question, said Daniel, my oldest son.
That is good advice, affirmed Wiskus, which is why giving children
an opportunity to ask questions is key.
Some children will ask very direct questions. When I told my two boys
I had breast cancer, my nine-year-old sons first question was, Is it
This is a fairly natural question from a child. As parents, at a very
biological level, we represent security to our childrens livelihoods,
and when that security is threatened, fear sets in. Children need to
know they will be safe; that no matter what happens, they will not be
abandoned and they will be cared for. That reassurance is essential."
After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis: Dialogue With Your Children
By Sharon Hansen
Ms. Hansen recommends the following books:
Our Family Has Cancer, Too!
by Christine Clifford, Jack Lindstrom
How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness
by Kathleen McCue, Ron Bonn
Can I Still Kiss You ? : Answering Your Children's Questions About
by Neil Russell
by Alice Trillin, Edward Koren (Illustrator), Paul Newman
Some additional titles you may find helpful:
When a Parent Has Cancer : Guide to Caring for Your Children, A
by Wendy S. Harpham
What Is Cancer Anyway?: Explaining Cancer to Children of All Ages
by Karen L. Carney
Our Mom Has Cancer
by Adrienne Ackermann, Abigail Ackermann
Cancer in the Family: Helping Children Cope With a Parent's Illness
by Sue P. Heiney (Editor), Joan F. Hermann, Katherine V. Bruss, Joy L.
Because... Someone I Love Has Cancer
Kids Activity Book
The American Cancer Society
A Tiny Boat at Sea: How to Help Children Who Have a Parent Diagnosed
By Izetta Smith, MA (How to order is at the bottom of the page)
*It Helps To Have Friends When Mom or Dad Has Cancer. (1987) American
Cancer Society, Inc. 1-800-ACS-2345.
Kids Worry Too. University of Nebraska Medical Center, Child Life
Department, Room 4145, 600 South 42nd Street, Omaha NE
Once Upon a Hopeful Night (1998) Risa Sacks Yaffe, Oncology Nursing
Press, Pittsburgh, PA.
*What About Me? A Booklet for Teenage Children of Cancer Patients.
(1986) Linda Leopold Strauss. Cancer Family Care, Inc., 7710 Reading
Road, Suite 204, Cincinnati, Ohio 45237. 1-513-731-3346.
*When Someone in Your Family Has Cancer. (1990) National Cancer
Institute, Publications Ordering Service, PO Box 24128, Baltimore, MD
[ Source: The American Cancer Society ]
Talking About Your Cancer: A Parent's Guide to Helping Children Cope.
Fox Chase Cancer Center, 1-215-728-2668, 1996.
*Hear How I Feel. Addresses impact of parental cancer on adolescents
and young adults. Northeastern Ontario Regional Cancer Centre,
Sudbury, Ontario, Canada 1996. Available through Tel: 705-523-6237,
Ext. 2175, Fax: 705-523-7319 or
*When A Parent Has Cancer: Looney Professor Boonie Explains Cancer to
Kids! Thunderbird Samaritan Medical Center, Glendale, Arizona 85306.
Tel: (602) 588-5450
[ Source: The American Cancer Society ]
I hope you find this information helpful. If you require further
assistance, please don't hesitate to ask for clarification. I'll be
glad to help.
I wish you strength.
With warmest regards,
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