Deciding what to tell your children can be one of the most difficult aspects of a cancer diagnosis. You don’t want to frighten them but at the same time you don’t want them to learn about it unexpectedly, perhaps from another child or by overhearing an adult conversation. How and what you will want to tell a child will depend very much on their age and level of maturity. As a general rule, small children will be satisfied with practical replies to their questions and be interested in the mechanics of treatment. It is important not to give too much information, replying to the question in hand rather than attempting a fuller explanation.
Older children who will have been exposed to cancer via TV, newspapers, the internet or other children may be very fearful and immediately assume that your prognosis is poor. As well as answering their questions, encourage them to talk about their feelings for they may be feeling guilty as if they have somehow caused your illness by their actions.
You may also want to talk to the school so that the teachers can keep a sympathetic eye on your child and let you know if they observe any unusual anxiety or behaviour. They are likely to be aware of what support services are available should you feel that professional help would be advisable.
You may find it helpful to talk with an experienced cancer counsellor so that you can plan the best way of breaking the news to your children and supporting them throughout your treatment. It also gives you an opportunity to talk through any other issues that have emerged as a result of the illness. For example, one way that children and teenagers can show their anxiety is through very challenging behaviour which can severely affect all the family relationships.
Useful Reading for younger children:
THE BIG C: Straight talking about Cancer by Julie Stokes, available from Winston’s Wish.
www.cancerhelp.org.uk – Talking with children