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How To Talk To Your Children About A Cancer Diagnosis

06/06/2017 11:26 EDT | Updated 06/06/2017 11:26 EDT

Written by Elaine Rapp, a social worker in Sunnybrook's Odette Cancer Program.

Patients often ask me whether or not they should tell their children about their cancer diagnosis and what words to use when doing so.

While telling your children about your cancer diagnosis is indeed a personal decision, it is my professional opinion that children should know about your cancer diagnosis and be told in an age-appropriate way.

Your child is a part of the family, and your cancer diagnosis is something that will affect the whole family. Children are a very important part of the entire story.

Your child, even if young, will likely pick up on the stress and worry that will fill your home when you face a cancer diagnosis and treatment. And very often, their imaginations are much wilder than the truth. Being honest with your children about your diagnosis will help them maintain trust in the adult world. Keeping this a secret from them at such a critical time could damage that trust they have in the adult world.

father son talk

So firstly, if you have received a cancer diagnosis and have children, speak to your co-parent, spouse or a trusted friend / family member and make a plan of how, when and where you will talk to them about that diagnosis and what it means.

Call it what it is

Avoid saying: "Mommy has a boo-boo." Or "Dad isn't feeling well." Call it cancer. It isn't the same as a scraped knee or a cold, so let's use the correct word. Explain to them what cancer is and you can even use pictures of cells and how they work in your body.

Your child may have questions now, or an hour from now or even days from now. Remind them that they can ask you anything at any time and that you will always tell them the truth. They should know that they live in a home where all questions will be answered and that there are no secrets.

Talk about side effects. If you will be on chemotherapy, explain that chemotherapy is a very strong drug used to get rid of or slow down the cancer. The drugs are so strong that they might make you feel sick or throw up or make your hair fall out. It's not the cancer doing that; it's the drugs.

I always recommend touching upon 3 more Cs in the conversation:

  • You will always be cared for and loved, no matter what happens.
  • This is not contagious.
  • You didn't cause this in any way.

Be honest and explain that some things will be different in your home. You won't have as much energy to play and you may not be able to do all the things you used to do, and that you hope that this will be temporary.

Your child might ask you "Are you going to die?" Children's sense of time is very different from the adults' perception of time. Be honest. You could say something like, "I am not dying now. Should anything change, I will always let you know."

It takes a village

It's important that you open the line of communication with your child's school. Talk to the teacher or principal about what you and your family are facing. Even if you are a private person and hesitate to make your diagnosis known, talking to the school is in your child's best interest. The school can offer your child an important support system.

Connect with a social worker at the hospital for individual, couples or family appointments. Connect your child with the social worker through your child's school.

Sometimes I recommend taking your child -- depending on their age -- to an appointment with you. They can meet the nice, friendly doctor or nurse and see that things are OK at the hospital. Trust your parental instinct. If you think this might be a good idea for your child, speak to a social worker.

Here are some resources:

Read more about living with cancer from Sunnybrook experts at health.sunnybrook.ca

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