Any diagnosis of a disability or disease is hard to swallow, but having to tell a child about a breast cancer diagnosis is emotionally overwhelming…to say the least. I was quite surprised by how anxious I was about telling my students and my friends’ kids because physical changes would take place right before their little eyes.

Because discussing cancer with your child is such an emotionally charged situation, my personal experience has enabled me to be empathetic with parents who try to hide the truth from children.

As a preteen, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and although I knew she was very ill, the disease was never explained to me in developmentally appropriate language. I was told not to talk about it, and to do well in school. That’s it.

All too often, parents avoid discussing a cancer diagnosis with children because they assume that “children can’t understand what is happening” or because they believe that “children shouldn’t be exposed to something awful.” Exposing children to cancer is indeed DSC_4447brutal and heart-wrenching, but children as young as 2 are able to understand what is happening to them. The key is to communicate with them in developmentally suitable ways.

Avoidance may feel better in the short term, but it has the potential to do long-term damage. Even when a cancer diagnosis is not formally discussed, children know that something has happened and are consequently left alone with distressing information. This aloneness forces children to draw inaccurate conclusions or develop maladaptive ways of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. While it may seem hard to believe, a child’s imagination has the capacity to create things that are far worse that the reality.

The Shining Moment is that there are helpful tools for talking with children about cancer.

  1. Plan ahead, and think through what you are going to say.
  2. Choose a time when you are calm, your children are well rested, and no one is rushed.
  3. Describe the disease in factual, truthful, and developmentally appropriate language.
  4. Tell your children that cancer is not contagious.
  5. Reassure your children that they did absolutely nothing to cause the cancer.
  6. Encourage your children to ask questions (frequently), and answer them to the best of your ability. If there is something that you don’t know the answer to, tell them that you will find out and get back to them.
  7. Describe how their lives may change: for example, a disruption in routines.
  8. Encourage your children to share their feelings.
  9. Tell your children that they will be cared for by someone they know (and identify that person).

Telling children about a cancer diagnosis in a family is emotionally difficult; however, there are professionals to help you every step of the way. Additionally, many hospitals and cancer centers have wonderful professionally led support groups for children where they can ask questions and talk about their feelings and share their experiences.

*This is the third article in a four-part series by Randi Rentz during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more information, go to Randi Rentz’s blog, and read more about Randi and her inspiring entries.

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