I Have Cancer: How Do I Tell My Children

June 6, 2018
Any parent can tell you, they have all had conversations that they would rather not have with their children. It could be the awkward puberty talk or confronting them about suspected substance abuse. If you are a new patient and a parent, you may be wondering how best to approach the subject of cancer. We asked our survivors what advice they had from their experiences sharing their diagnosis with their kids, and they delivered! Many survivors say they struggle to know when their kids are old enough to understand and how much they should tell their kids. A common point was honesty is the best policy but to make sure it was age appropriate. Marie Sander had this to share:

 My kids were 12, 15 and 18 when I was diagnosed. We waited until most of my initial       appointments and scans were done, and we had a plan to tell them. My oldest had just started college so we had to drive over an hour to tell her in person. The other two we sat down together and told them. We tried to stay positive and explain things in very general terms that they would understand. After speaking to them individually I asked if they wanted to know. All of them said yes absolutely. My younger daughter said she would have been angry if we didn't tell her. They sense that something is going on and it's worse for them to worry and try to figure things out. Now I don't tell them EVERYTHING!! You have to know your kids and what they can handle.

Another concern was how much of the physical toll do you expose your children to. Caretaker, Sandra McIntosh, spoke about her approach for her young son:

We used simple terms with him that daddy is very sick, and he takes special medication. Not once did he do hospital visits until I felt he was ready and understood what a hospital was. Unfortunately, Mark got sicker and required oxygen when our son turned 3. It was scary for a bit. We taught him it helps daddy breathe. When he went into hospice in the hospital I took him since it was so welcoming. Mark was “doing well.” Something I’d never wish on a parent. He asked to go see daddy. Then he knew the day he couldn’t like a 6th sense.

Some parents decided to use books or their children’s interests to deliver the news more gently. Cindy Beeman read, “The Goodbye Cancer Garden” to her kids and Ann Bradford took this approach:

This analogy helped me with my daughters, who were 10 and 13, and major PotterHeads. So, for those of you who love Harry Potter and whose children do: I told my girls, who were terrified of losing me: “I’m going to be ‘the Mama who lived.’” That one statement told them everything: that this was going to be hard, fatiguing, grueling, and overwhelming, but that, in the end, together, we would all get through. And that although some people don’t survive, I was going to do everything I could to do so.

Keeping a sense of normalcy was also important to patients. They didn’t want their kids to miss the opportunity to basically be kids because cancer became part of their lives. Lindsay Norris wrote this in her blog, “Here Come the Sun”:

We already had tickets to a baseball game for that first weekend after I found out- and we decided to still go. It was my first lesson in life with cancer-  keep up your normal plans as much as you can. It turned out to be a great day full of distraction and smiles. I told myself from that day on, I would do everything in my power to not let cancer take away from any of their fun childhood memories.

Parents also recommended keeping teachers, counselors, coaches, and other adults involved in their children’s daily lives in the loop, so they would understand if certain behaviors popped up. Melissa McConnell says:

Our next move was to talk to their classroom teachers and school counselors. Having them help us “watch” for signs in case the girls were struggling throughout his treatments, surgeries, etc, helped tremendously. We kept them informed — hey, surgery is next week, he’s back in the hospital — it clued them in to be on alert if the girls appeared to need more support.

We also received some advice from a child’s perspective to help parents see their point of view. Jennifer Phillips had this advice:

As a child whose parents had to have this discussion with me, I suggest starting with the “positives” (yah, I know...what’s positive about a cancer diagnosis), but when my parents told me about my mother’s diagnosis, they started off by telling me that they loved me, that we were a family and we were going to fight it together. That she was going to have surgery, then she would go through treatments and that the outlook was good as long as she listened to the doctors. Then came the “but”. BUT, we are dealing with cancer. So, anything can happen. And the best thing they did was they kept me informed & involved. Every doctor appointment. Every hospital stay. I was there.

  A theme seemed to resonate with our survivors. Children are strong, resilient, and are wise beyond their years. They understand so much, and it is our job to make sure they get the information in a way they can handle it. Joann Simms put it perfectly, “My conversations were honest and progressed on their own. I didn’t force info on them and I answered whatever they asked honestly. We laughed, cried and hugged together.” So as parents, we do our best and realize these amazing little humans of ours are survivors too.   Diana Sloan is a stage IV colorectal cancer patient and staff writer for The Colon Club's "On the Rise" Magazine