pink ribbon for breast cancer

Supporting A Child Whose Parent Has Cancer

It is October – a time for pumpkins, Halloween…and breast cancer awareness. The numerous pink ribbons we’ll see this month focus attention on the many women (and men) who are facing a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. But what about the kids who have a parent or primary caretaker with cancer? For a child, coping with a loved one’s diagnosis can be particularly traumatic.

In this article, we’ll answer your questions about the best ways to discuss a parent’s cancer diagnosis and give you some ideas for supporting a child whose parent has cancer.

Should I Use The Word “Cancer” When Talking To My Kids?

Absolutely – and this applies even to young children. Although your first instinct is to shield your child from a harsh reality, kids need to have open, honest conversations with their parents – no matter the prognosis. Imagine how much more upsetting it could be to know there is something wrong, but not knowing what it is.

When you first talk to your child about a cancer diagnosis, do it privately and be sure to set aside enough time to answer their questions. If you don’t know the answers, let them know that you will do some research and get back to them.

“The most important thing is to communicate openly, honestly and frequently,” say social workers, Wendy Griffith and April Greene, with the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. “Children tend to think in very concrete terms and like to know what’s going on and what to expect.”

Keep in mind, too, that many people’s first reaction to a cancer diagnosis is the fear that the person will die. Children who are old enough to understand the concept of death will understandably be concerned about that possibility as well, even if they don’t ask.

Ms. Griffith and Ms. Greene recommend using “the 5 C’s” when you discuss a cancer diagnosis with your kids:

  • Say that it’s cancer.
  • Tell your kids, “You didn’t cause it. You can’t catch it. You can’t control it.”
  • Also, tell your kids that you can still spend quality time together, participate in care, still be a kid, have fun, etc.”

How To Talk To Kids About Cancer

When talking to children about cancer, consider the age of the child and keep it simple, but informative. Just lay out the facts:

  • Cancer affects cells – the tiny units that make up all living things. Each person has billions of cells in their body.
  • Usually, cells grow and divide. They are programmed to stop growing after a certain point and to eventually die.
  • In cancer cells, this normal progression gets interrupted and the cells do not stop growing and dividing. They also do not die.
  • These abnormal cells clump together to form a tumor. Tumors can kill the healthy cells around them, which makes the person sick.
  • Doctors aren’t sure why some people get cancer, although some unhealthy habits can make it easier for someone to get cancer. These include things like smoking or using tobacco products and drinking too much alcohol daily.
  • Cancer is not caused by germs and it isn’t contagious. It is okay to hug or kiss someone with cancer.

How To Explain Cancer Treatments To Children

When discussing cancer treatments with a child, gear your explanation to the child’s age level. Young children need to know the basics, while teens and tweens will likely want a more in-depth explanation:

  • Many cancers are treated with surgery. The surgeon will try to remove as much of the cancer as possible and the person will need some time to heal afterward. Let your child know that you can still hug and kiss them, and even play with them, but that they will have to be gentle around the surgery site and you may be limited in what you can do while you are recovering.
  • Often, chemotherapy (chemo) is used for cancer treatment. Chemo is specialized medicine that attacks and kills the cancer cells. Sometimes people take a chemotherapy pill, sometimes the chemo is given intravenously through an IV. Some people have a port put in under their skin to make it easier to get the IV form of chemo. A port is a small device that inserts into a large blood vessel in the chest – it will look like a big “bump” on the chest after it is implanted. The person will need to be careful and protect the port site. The port will be removed after chemo is finished.
  • Some people may get radiation treatment for their cancer. Radiation uses something like an xray to kill the cancer cells.
  • All of these treatments can make the cancer patient very tired and they may have trouble eating, might lose their hair, and may experience nausea and vomiting. This is all temporary and goes away after the treatment is finished.
  • During treatment, the person’s immune system will be very low, so they should stay away from the child if the child has a cold. If the person does get sick, reassure the child that it isn’t their fault – it happened because the cancer treatment has weakened their body’s immune system.
  • After the cancer treatment is finished, the goal is to be in remission, which means there are no signs left of the cancer. The oncologist (cancer doctor) will do tests to see if the cancer is gone. If there is still some remaining, which sometimes happens, the doctor may give the person more chemo or radiation.

The National Cancer Institute has a free, comprehensive guide for teens whose parent or loved one is facing cancer. It is available in a PDF, a Kindle version, and ePub form and the information can be scaled down to help younger kids.

Coping When A Parent Has Cancer

Children will worry about their parent’s health and will also likely feel some resentment that life has upended for everyone. They may also feel guilty, sad, and angry.

To help your child cope:

  • Try to continue as normal a routine as possible while going through treatment.
  • Let them know that it is okay for them to talk to you and tell you about their feelings – both positive and negative.
  • Asking questions can help calm fears because, just like with adults, imaginations can sometimes get the best of us. Connecting with the parent through questions and discussions can help the child feel less alone.
  • For older children and teens, journaling can be a great outlet for their thoughts and feelings.
  • Getting together with friends and being active can help relieve stress. Encourage your child to continue doing the things they enjoy so they don’t feel guilty about having fun.
  • Let them know it is okay to talk to others about your diagnosis and treatment. They may feel more comfortable about sharing their fears and concerns with a close relative or friend.
  • Support groups can be very helpful for kids. They can share their feelings with peers and learn from those who are going through the same experience. There are online support groups or in-person groups. Often, the oncologist or the oncology social worker will have recommendations for local support groups.
  • Sometimes it isn’t enough for a child to talk to a parent, relative, or their peers. In this case, it may help to talk to a neutral person such as a guidance counselor, school nurse, or clergy person.
  • Watch for your teen’s risky behavior (smoking, drinking alcohol, sex or drugs). Sometimes teens turn to these activities in order to cope and you may need to seek outside help if it continues.
  • In some cases, psychosocial support may be needed from a mental health therapist, child psychologist, or other professional counselor.

Find Support At Our Children’s Center

If your child is struggling with the cancer diagnosis of a loved one, talk with a compassionate child psychologist at Children’s Center for Psychiatry, Psychology and Related Services in Delray Beach, Florida. Contact us or call us for more information at (561) 223-6568.

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