For parents facing a cancer diagnosis, 10 ways to help the kids cope

young woman and her sick daughter waiting in doctor’s room
Reassure your children that although life might be bumpy for a while, what won’t change is how much they are loved.

So many members of my Facebook cancer group are younger adults, often parents of young children. At the moment a mother or father’s world is falling apart, they must think about what their children need.  Here are a few smart ideas my group has offered to help parents decide how – and when – to tell their children about their cancer.

  1. Don’t even think about telling them on the day of your diagnosis. You don’t have enough information about your treatment or your prognosis yet to say whether you’ll still be working, whether you’ll need to take a timeout from your children’s activities, and what your side effects could be.
  2. At the same time, don’t delay too long. It would be devastating to your children to get this kind of news from a neighbor, friend or even a close relative. This news needs to come from you.
  3. After you speak to your oncologist and/or surgeon and have an idea of what to expect during your treatment, ask if they have a social worker on staff that you can consult. Explain that you have children and need some advice on how to tell them that Mommy or Daddy is sick.
  4. Resist the urge to shield your children. Children are inherently inquisitive, intuitive and observant. They can sense when something is different about their parents, and how they are interacting. The American Cancer Society offers more sound advice on this topic.  A cancer diagnosis is always stressful. Adding deceit by withholding information could add more stress for the patient and their spouse or caregiver. Children are more resilient than people realize.

    Camera icon Courtesy photo
    Cancer survivor Jane Ashley.

  5. Don’t over-explain. The younger the child, the less specific information you should provide. Younger children only need to know Mommy or Daddy is sick. Explain the doctor is going to try to make them well. Reassure them that they can’t catch what Mommy or Daddy has. If you know that baldness will be a consequence of your treatment, mention it to them so that they won’t be surprised or scared. Two of my younger friends lost their hair due to breast cancer chemotherapy, giving me a firsthand view of how you can help avoid fear and anxiety with a little advance warning. If you think it might appeal to your children, you might even promise them that they can help you choose head coverings or go shopping with you for a wig.
  6. Reassure your children. Let them know your doctors are working hard to help you. Let them know you might have to go to the hospital, but that they will be well cared for at home by another parent, grandparent, or someone they know.
  7. Encourage your children to ask any questions at any time.
  8. Call your child’s school guidance counselor and/or principal to let them know what’s going on in your family so they will be prepared for any behavior changes or a slip in grades.
  9. Teenagers likely will understand better than younger children just how serious cancer is. Some might resent changes to their family life. Others will be so eager to help out that they neglect school work. Some might rebel and turn to alcohol, drugs, or unprotected sex. Be alert to changes in their emotions, talk to them openly, and get help for them if needed.
  10. As much as your energy reserves will allow, make time for family fun. Reassure them that the family will still have trips and outings together, though they might be a little different for a while. This is also a good time to explain that Mom or Dad might need extra naps during treatment.

Prepare your children for the changes that will happen. Reassure your children that although life might be bumpy for a while, what won’t change is how much they are loved.

Jane Ashley was diagnosed with Stage IV rectal cancer in October 2014. She lives in Middle Georgia with her husband. She enjoys photography, walking and gardening. Her book, Cancer: The Light at the End of the Tunnel, is a 2017 Georgia Author of the Year winner and is available on Amazon.  This column appears through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for over a million patients and caregivers.