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The Cancer Talk: Sharing About Cancer Diagnosis With A Child

When someone in the family has been diagnosed with cancer, it is important for all family members including young children to be aware of it. Several questions may arise in our minds about “right time” “should I avoid?” and “how much” to tell a child. Nevertheless, it is imperative that children are aware and prepared for the news as well as the life that follows post-diagnosis.  

Children can easily sense the vibes of parents and adults around them. They are more perceptive about body language, and can easily sense when something is wrong or out of the routine. Hence, not disclosing or talking to them, can make them anxious and stressful.

Depending on the age of your child, share with them age-appropriate, simple and accurate information about the illness, treatment, etc. The support of your little one in the long battle against cancer is vital.

Here are some tips to help parents and caregivers have the “Cancer Talk” with their children.

  1. Start with the basics

    Explain to the child in simple terms the basic things such as the name of cancer, the part of the body that is affected by it, how their loved one will be treated and how frequently they may have to visit a hospital and the possible changes in the routine they will have to expect. For younger children, you may use a picture of the human body to explain what is happening.

  1. Address the problem before they jump to conclusions

    Always curious, children have a tendency to overhear conversations amongst adults. They can also easily detect the slightest change in the emotional environment. Rather than allowing them to draw conclusions of their own as to what is wrong with someone, the best course of action is to explain the situation to them as plainly as possible.

  1. Plan what to say

    It is important to plan what you’re going to tell the children. Whether you chose to break the news to all of them together or individually, should ideally depend on their ability to absorb complex information and the personality of the child. Remember, each child is different from the other and may react in a completely different way. It helps to have your words and emotions planned out in advance so as to not overwhelmed the child and yourself.

  1. Make sure you set aside quiet time without interruptions

    When you execute the plan, make sure the child has your undivided attention and choose a time when the child is calm and well-rested.  Give time after each short sentence for the information to seep into the mind.  Understand the cue from your child’s expression and body language, and rephrase or repeat the information if needed.

  1. Honesty is the best policy

    Children have a high trust quotient with parents and close family members.   Do not lie about the disease, be honest and generous to use the words “I do not know” where you do not know.  You may also set truthful expectations such as “your dad may be in the hospital for a few days” and so on.

    Honesty helps children prepare and deal with major life-changing events better.

  1. Use simple language and repeat the information

    It is of utmost importance to use simple and understandable language with children. Refrain from using complicated words and terminology. It might have the opposite effect and scare the child even more. Strategically repeating the information will help them accept reality and cope with it better.

  1. Involve them, not isolate

    Sometimes, it’s okay to involve the older children in the new routine rather than shutting them out completely. The key to making them feel wanted, give them an opportunity to help without it becoming a burden and to not try and over-protect them. Sometimes, the child may interpret our rationale of wanting to spare them the pain differently. They may feel neglected, upset and resent the patient for making this decision without considering their feelings.

  1. Reassure and help them deal with self-blame or guilt

    Often younger children blame serious things on themselves. It is critical that you tell them this wasn’t their fault or anybody’s fault. People fall sick all the time, sometimes they get better other times they don’t. The subject of death in terminal cases needs to be touched upon delicately.

    It’s important to remember that a child will have the same amount of separation anxiety as an adult. Give them enough time to come to terms with the inevitable.

    In the case of patients undergoing treatment, try and make sure the children understand how the disease will affect the family member physically, for example, hair and weight loss or reduced activity. This will help them mentally prepare for the transition and they may be more understanding of why certain routines need to be changed. It also ensures their sense of safety and security isn’t compromised.

  1. Encourage questions and answer them as truthfully as possible

    Children of all ages will have questions about the disease. Make sure you answer them, age permitting, as truthfully as possible. They will cope better if they understand what’s happening with the patient and what to expect in the next few months. It also helps for them to get information from you first hand, rather than other unreliable sources.

  1. Try and maintain their normal routine

    As much as possible, try and maintain a semblance of normalcy in the child’s routine with subtle minor changes. If it’s the child’s primary caregiver fighting cancer, make sure the child understands that he or she will be taken care off even in their absence. Gradually, shift certain responsibilities to other family members so that the child has enough time to get accustomed to the changes and doesn’t feel abandoned.

  1. Keep a vigil on the child’s mental well being

    This is perhaps the most important thing to do; lookout for any behavioural changes. Children may not feel confident to voice their concerns in front of adults and their thoughts and insecurities might lead them to become withdrawn, detached, moody or over-aggressive. If you notice a slight indication of this, make sure you talk to them and help them express themselves. Bottling their fear and confusion is only going to harm the child’s mental health

    We have to understand and remember that even young children are capable of exhibiting tremendous understanding, empathy and compassion. Sometimes we just need to allow them the chance to do so.

Cytecare’s Support & Counseling Clinic:

We have highly skilled and professional onco-psychiatrist and clinical psychologists, who understand and provide support while you deal with cancer. You may seek help from our clinic to discuss your concerns and anxiety. To know more, contact us at