How to Talk to Kids About Your Cancer (at Any Age)

Advice to guide children through your cancer journey

If you’re living with cancer, it’s a struggle to find the best way to explain it to your children. How much detail should you share; how much is too much? Here’s a guide to help you with these tough conversations. The first step is to understand what your child’s behavior is telling you.

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Babies. Believe it or not, even infants can feel the impact of a parent who is diagnosed with cancer. Babies feel tension and anxiety in your body contact or voice. They may even feel separation anxiety if parents are away at appointments or treatment. It may be necessary for mothers to stop breastfeeding depending on their treatments, such as chemotherapy.

Tips: Choose a close circle of caregivers to interact with your baby frequently. They can help provide comfort and support. Keep in mind that babies show anxiety through behavior changes; they may cry, eat differently or have sleeping issues.

Children under age 5. Small children may revert to bed-wetting if they are potty-trained or try to sleep in your bed. They may want to be held all the time or exhibit other baby-like behaviors. They may also change in their eating habits or act out.

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Tips: Focus on spending extra time with them, and try to explain what is happening in their language. Also, let them know that it’s not OK to misbehave. Instead, encourage kids to ask questions and show their emotions. Let them know how they can help, and establish routines. Also, ask other family members to care for them when you aren’t there. Reading age-appropriate books that contain stories about parents with cancer may also help.

School-aged children. Kids at this age may need reassurance that they are physically healthy. They may internalize illness and feel they are unwell. They may have vague symptoms, such as abdominal pain, headaches or fatigue. Anger, acting out, or even becoming introverted may be coping mechanisms. Kids this age may also feel a sense of guilt.

Tips: Let kids know that they have done nothing that caused your illness. Use words your child can understand, such as “doctor” rather than “oncologist” and “medicine” rather than “chemotherapy.” Just make sure that all the information is still accurate. Involving children can also help them cope. Try giving them small jobs around the house, such as sorting or folding laundry or making the bed. Encourage emotional outlets, such as painting and drawing. Social workers, nurses or child-life specialists may be a resource that your cancer center can provide.

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Communicating with your child about cancer isn’t easy but it’s important. Be honest and remember to lean on your supports along the way. Remember, also, that children are resilient and they are on this journey with you.

 — From the book The Complete Cancer Organizer by Jamie L. Schwachter, BSN, MSN, CNP and Josette M.Snyder, BSN, MSN, AOCN

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Cancer Answer Nurses

Jamie Schwachter, BSN, MSN, NP-C and Josette Snyder, RN, MSN, AOCN are Advanced Practice Nurses for Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute’s Cancer Answer Line.
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