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Tough Talk: How To Tell Your Child You Have Cancer

My son Jack was 6, smart and very inquisitive when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer this spring. I had no idea what to tell him—or whether I should even say anything. I mean, cancer was hard enough for me to swallow—literally, since I had a giant tumor in my neck—let alone for my little grade-schooler. What to do? I interviewed Ann Marie Otis, a breast cancer survivor and "Guardian Diva" at CureDiva.com, an online community and retail site for women's breast cancer lifestyle needs. She suggests using this advice for kids ages 4–12.

Tell ... and Let Them Yell

"My youngest was 4 when I told him I was diagnosed, and his reaction was 'stupid dumb breast cancer,' " Otis says.

She says those words were considered naughty in their house, so saying them gave him some freedom to release the confusing anger that was building up. It's OK to bend the rules and allow your kids to express themselves their way.

For me, when I looked into Jack's big brown eyes, "I have a boo-boo in my neck" is all that tripped from my lips, and it wasn't enough for Mr. Twenty Questions. He wanted to know what kind of boo-boo I had, how it got there, if he could catch my boo-boo, like the time he gave me his sore throat...and on and on. I threw a string of "Nos" at him and changed the subject. (By the way, it's OK to say boo-boo, sickies or anything to demonstrate you are sick.)

I thought I was in the clear after my first surgery. Heck, I didn't even have to mention the Big C to my kid. But then my doctor told me I needed a second operation. I was crushed—crushed for my kid. And I knew I wouldn't be able to fib any longer. Another "boo-boo"? Really!

So, one night over ice cream at our favorite place, I used Otis's approach and just came out with it. To my surprise, my kid responded similarly to hers: "I'll karate chop any more cancer that comes near you! It's disgusting and gross!" Jack said. Seeing him react and release his feelings about my Big C boo-boo was amazing. He wasn't scared. He was mad—and protective of me.

Pick A Sweet Spot To Share

I was glad I chose the ice cream place because it's a comforting environment for both of us. I mean: hello, hot fudge sundae and fro-yo! Plus, it was wonderful to return there after my surgery and order a soothing milkshake for my throat. Jack was happy to see that a strawberry shake was just what the doctor ordered.

"They need familiar surroundings when you tell them you have cancer, so they can relate and find comfort," Otis says.

Involve Your Village

Now that the cat was out of the bag, my brothers and family were able to assure Jack I'd be OK.

"Whoever will be helping with the kids should be involved because children need 'lean-tos,' as I call them—someone to lean on," Otis says.

My brothers took turns hosting sleepovers with Jack while I was hospitalized, and my parents helped him buy flowers for me. I made sure to send a detailed note to his teacher so she was aware of what was happening at home and conscious of Jack's feelings during this new and rough time. Everyone I enlisted to help was amazing!

Prepare Your Kids for Your Battle Wounds

This was all great, but I was still a little nervous about what it would be like when I removed my bandage and Jack saw the raw scar and stitches.

"I documented the entire process through photography," Otis says. "This helped to discuss what was going on with my kids. When I had the mastectomy, I asked my son Sam, 10, if he wanted to see the surgery scars, and he said he wasn't sure but asked to see the pictures first."

Otis says that after her son looked through them all he smiled and said: "Phew, I thought you were going to have two holes on your chest!"

This taught her—and me—that kids conjure up all sorts of ideas in their heads, so the more you talk, the more it takes the "scary" out of the situation for them.

"Keep it simple, to their language, and let them lead it. Then it comes natural," Otis says.

To prepare Jack for my scar, I spent an afternoon drawing and coloring with him. At one point, I suggested that I draw a closeup of him and he draw one of me. When he was done with his drawing, I asked if I could add something. When he agreed, I added a thin line on the neck and some cutesy stitches tied at each end with a bow. When Jack asked what I was doing, I explained that in a few days when my bandage would come off that I would have that exact marking, and he thought it was cool!

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