Being a parent and receiving a cancer diagnosis at any age is hard. It doesn’t matter how old you are as the parent. It doesn’t matter how old you are as the child. I’ve been on both sides of this particular “cancer fence.” I’ve been the “child.” I’ve been the parent. Being on either side is hard.
Even though I was of a “mature age” when my mother received her cancer diagnosis eight years ago, it was still really tough for me as the daughter to watch her go through diagnosis and treatment and I’m sure it was equally as hard for her to observe me watching her go through it. Even though her children were adults, she still wanted to protect us.
When my diagnosis came almost two years ago, the “tables were turned” and I quickly understood what it was like to be the parent.
I was lucky in some respects because my children were not young children. Mine were young adults already, the youngest being eighteen at the time of my diagnosis. However, they had just witnessed first-hand their grandmother’s illness and death from metastatic breast cancer. They already knew and understood way too much. Their knowledge was and still is a “concern” of mine. I often worry they know too much because in fact, they do.
When you receive a cancer diagnosis while raising young children, the challenges are much different and I dare say probably more difficult, at least in some ways.
Having said that, there is no “better time” to get cancer. A “better time” doesn’t exist. Nor is there a “better” time to be the child of a parent diagnosed with cancer.
Cancer at any age or from any vantage point stinks.
When a parent with young children receives a cancer diagnosis, there may be a lot of uncertainty as to how much to tell them, or if they’re really young, if they should be told at all. Of course, this is a very personal decision. There is no right answer.
As an educator and a parent, I believe in being pretty truthful with age-appropriate information when explaining to kids about cancer. If children are of an age when they can understand a simple but honest explanation, I believe they can and should be told at least some of the truth.
“I believe in being pretty truthful with age-appropriate information when explaining to kids about cancer.”
Kids are really good at figuring out when something is seriously wrong anyway. They may hesitate to talk about their worries or be afraid and unsure of what to ask. They may keep such feelings, fears and questions to themselves, which may or may not lead to those feelings “coming out” in unexpected or inappropriate behaviors at some point.
As I’ve said before, not talking about something does not equal not thinking about it.
When feelings and fears are bottled up too long, they tend to come out eventually in some form anyway.
Also, kids are really good at imagining things on their own if they don’t receive an explanation. Sometimes they really do imagine the worst when they don’t need to.
“Not talking about something does not equal not thinking about it.”
Don’t we all?
I believe giving kids enough information, but not necessarily too much, can help alleviate such tendencies.
Here are some tips for talking to your child/children about a cancer diagnosis. Obviously, I am not a professional counselor. These are only my opinions.
- Decide who is the best person to tell the child/children.This might be the parent with the cancer diagnosis, the other parent or another family member (or close friend) entirely. I left “my telling” up to hubby. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it so soon after my mother’s illness and death.
- Although there is no “good time” to break the news, try to pick an appropriate time to have the initial cancer discussion when you can devote the time and extra mental energy it will undoubtedly require.
- Start with a simple explanation and then see what questions or concerns come up.
- Take the lead from each child. Offer reassurance as honestly as possible and always give each child an opportunity to state their feelings and ask questions. They might need to process the information for a while, so be sure to “check back in” frequently.
- You don’t need to tell every cancer detail, but don’t feel you must hold everything back either. Find the right balance for your family.
- Remember each child, even in the same family, might need more or less information and that’s fine. It doesn’t always boil down to age. Some younger children might want and handle more information better than older ones.
- Refrain from over-protecting your children. Kids can handle a whole lot more than we think they can. They don’t necessarily need protection all the time from the bad things in life and trying to protect them may, in fact, be more harmful in the long run.
- There are resources available to help. Use them if you need guidance or suggestions.
- Asking for help can be hard and sometimes asking for help after a cancer diagnosis can be even harder for some reason. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if needed.
- Tell yourself as many times as necessary that is’t OK for your children to see you vulnerable. This one’s harder than it sounds.
- Don’t underestimate your children’s ability to cope, with your guidance of course.
- Do the best you can. Remember parenting before cancer is hard at times. Parenting during cancer treatment is hard at times. Parenting when cancer treatment ends will be hard at times too.
Being honest with children may help bring your family closer as everyone rallies together to help. Even young children are capable of exhibiting tremendous understanding, empathy and compassion. Sometimes we just need to allow them the chance to do so.
“Kids can handle a whole lot more than we think they can.”
Each cancer diagnosis is unique. Each family is unique, as is each child. Any family dealing with a cancer diagnosis must decide what’s uniquely right for them.
Is honesty always the best policy?
I think it is.
Have you had to tell children about a cancer diagnosis and if so, how did you go about it?
How did your children react to your diagnosis?
What has been one of your challenges parenting with cancer?
Have you been the “child” of a parent diagnosed with cancer?
After her recent breast cancer diagnosis, Nancy Stordahl started a blog at www.nancyspoint.com where she writes candidly about her own breast cancer experience, reconstruction, BRCA2 status, grief/loss, pets and other topics. She also advocates for change in today’s current breast cancer culture. Nancy has had articles accepted for publication in Grief Digest, Animal Wellness and Coping with Cancer. Work continues on her upcoming memoir, “Cancer in the Family, Is It My Turn Already?” She resides in Wisconsin with her husband, two dogs and one cat. She has a daughter and two sons.
Reprinted with permission from Nancy Stordahl.