How to Talk to Your Kids About a Cancer Diagnosis

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elissa-redding
Elissa Redding, BSN, RN-BC, gastrointestinal nurse navigator at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center

Many parents who are diagnosed with cancer wrestle with how or if to tell their children about their diagnosis. Sharing this information is important to parent/child relationships, but is different for every family.

“Sometimes, patients are in denial about their own diagnosis, as they struggle to understand the unexpected journey ahead of them, let alone how to tell their children,” says Elissa Redding, BSN, RN-BC, gastrointestinal nurse navigator at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center. “It is common to feel overwhelmed about this decision, and I encourage my patients to take time for themselves if they need it before they share.”

If you do decide to tell your children, sit down and talk to them at an age-appropriate level. As their parent, you know what type of communication and environment will work best, so use your intuition and experience with past serious conversations to decide what’s best for your kids, which may mean telling each child separately.

“Parents should find an environment where they won’t be interrupted,” Elissa says. “Remind them that your cancer is not their fault and ask them to be honest with you about their worries and feelings. They don’t always need to know the clinical details, but let them know what it means and how it will affect them.”

Timing is also an important aspect of telling your children about cancer.

“Initially at diagnosis, patients are coping with the disease themselves, trying to take it all in and understand it,” she says. “It is important for the patient to deal with the diagnosis alone or with an adult loved one first, understand it, accept it, decide what your children need to know and how you need to tell them, and then proceed in telling your children, as well as other friends and family.”

Communication will be very different for a young child versus a teenager or adult children. Older children normally have a better grasp of the situation and what is going on, and may be able to lend a hand around the house and help younger children cope.

Some cancer patients’ children often want to come along with their parent to treatment, while some may be very upset about the diagnosis and others may continue on with normal life.

If your children are school-aged, one thing that may help them is to find someone at school they can talk to, or even someone they can relate to who has also had a parent go through cancer. It can be helpful to let your child’s teachers, school administrators and friends’ parents know what is going on, so they can help your child and understand what he or she may be going through.

It is important to remember there is no one-size-fits-all way to share a cancer journey. If you have questions about cancer and resources available in your community, you can speak to a nurse through askSARAH at (844) 482-4812.

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