Today, I wanted to share my advice on how to talk to kids about cancer. On the surface, talking to your kids about cancer can seem like a daunting task. I know this is exactly how I felt when I had to tell my daughter my dad had cancer, and also that I had been diagnosed as being positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation which puts me at a high lifetime risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
You worry about how anxious they will begin to feel. Or that they might imagine the worst-case scenario which is all totally understandable. One of the biggest challenges you will face whether it is yourself or someone else you love battling cancer, is how you are supposed to break the news and start the conversation.
I realised – from my own experience – that talking with your child about cancer, and somewhat normalising it whilst keeping them positive is one of the most important things you can do for them during this difficult time.
Keep reading for tips from someone who has been there on how to talk with your kid honestly about cancer in a way that shows them how much you care without scaring them into thinking the worst.
Have a plan before you start talking
When it comes to how to talk to kids about cancer, it’s not a good idea to wing it — at least not right away. The best way to start the conversation is to have an open, honest, and detailed discussion with your child about your feelings and experiences with cancer. This will help you discuss the topic and come to terms with your feelings. It will also allow you to talk with them about their feelings so they can understand what they are going through and what they might be experiencing. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor for extra copies of your file or brochures about cancer if you think your child might be curious. And once you’ve had that talk, don’t be afraid to continue the conversation. Cancer can be a very open and honest topic. With 1 in 2 of us expected to develop some form of cancer in our lifetimes, it’s important to keep talking about it with them.
Be yourself when you talk to your kid
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they talk with their kids about cancer is trying to be someone they’re not by putting on a brave face. Or trying to explain it like they are a medical professional. Most children don’t understand how a parent might be feeling when they mention cancer whether it’s their own or a loved one’s. So they might be scared if you’re not yourself when you talk to them.
While you can certainly explain the emotions and feelings that come up with cancer, don’t try to be someone you’re not to avoid this kind of confusion. Remember, no matter how you’re feeling, you are always going to be the most important person in your child’s life. That should be your focus when talking with them.
Don’t push or preach, just listen
With all the hype surrounding cancer and the many different ways people talk about it, it’s easy to feel like you have to say something in order to make your child feel comfortable. You might be tempted to talk about the latest cancer research. Or talk about the treatments your doctor has suggested for you or your loved one. Perhaps you might want to your child in terms your child can understand.
Generally speaking, your child is probably not yet at a place where they should be hearing about cancer at a high level of detail. Explaining the treatment plan or what might happen to your child is very important. However this is best drip-fed at a later stage rather than by bamboozling them with everything from the get-go.
One thing I found really helped just after the initial talk, was to drop in nuggets of information into everyday life. Whether that was about my own father’s cancer and treatment or my own preventative surgeries. This really helped to normalise things and make everything seem a lot less scary for our daughter.
Remember, your goal when talking with your child is to create a safe, comfortable space where they can feel accepted and understood. Cancer is a difficult topic that can bring up a lot of emotions, and it’s important to keep the tone of the conversation positive, no matter how you are feeling deep down inside.
Keep the conversation positive
While it’s important to discuss the negative elements of cancer, when talking with your child about cancer, keep the conversation positive and make it about what your child wants to hear about, not what you feel you need to offload. Look for ways to turn the conversation towards your child and talk with them more than just about yourself. Talk about what’s going well in their life, what activities they like to do, and ask them questions about their thoughts, dreams, and interests. Keep the conversation about your child positive and upbeat by highlighting the things that make them special and unique, and don’t talk about cancer as if it’s going to change your child or their life in a negative way.
Talking openly and honestly with your kids about cancer can be difficult, but it’s important. Kids are smart cookies and pick up on everything so it is not advisable to keep cancer – whether it be yours or a loved one’s – secret.
Being honest with your kids about everything in an age-appropriate way, including cancer, helps them to prepare for the future and get the support they need when they are going through something difficult. It can also help you to build a trusting relationship with your children later in life.
If you’re nervous about talking to your kids about cancer, remember that you can always start the conversation by talking with your doctor or a counselor which is exactly how I started. While it can be hard to open up about something so difficult, it will be worth it when your children ask you questions in the near future and you can answer them honestly in an age-appropriate way which feels so much better than having to constantly cover up and make excuses.