Talking to children about cancer: What should I say?

Second of seven articles in a series on how to talk to your children about cancer.

You’ve decided to be open and honest with your kids about your cancer diagnosis. But what should you actually say to them?

Use the word “cancer”

First of all, let me strongly encourage you to do this. I have worked with kids who understood that their parent was sick and when they later heard that mom or dad had cancer, they thought it was a new problem: “My mommy has been so sick and now she has cancer too!”

By using the word “cancer” early in your conversations, you can help your child better understand what’s happening.

Practice your explanation ahead of time

You’ll feel more comfortable and prepared if you practice. Tell or show your children where the cancer is on your body, or use a doll or teddy bear to illustrate in a way they can relate to.

Expect them to ask if you’re going to die

Be prepared for this tough question. Let them know that even though it is a serious disease, it doesn’t mean that you’ll die from it. Tell them that you and your doctors are working hard to get rid of the cancer.

Expect them to repeat the same questions

As kids process the information, they will probably start asking questions and sometimes they will keep repeating the same questions. This is not to drive you crazy. It is, for them, a strategy to get you to give them a different answer (just like when they want an ice cream cone) and to help them begin to understand the information.

It’s okay to say “I don’t know”

Above all else, know that it is perfectly okay to say “I don’t know” when you simply don’t know the answer to their question. If they are asking for information that the medical team may know, tell the kids that you’ll try to find out for them.

But often times, kids ask questions that there just really isn’t an answer to. Don’t make up the answer because if they later realize that you lied to them, they may be very upset.

Remember: You know your kids better than anyone, so trust your instincts when talking to them.

This post was contributed by Cinda McDonald, a Certified Child Life specialist with the Supportive and Palliative care team at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.

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Talking to children about cancer: What should I say?