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Telling Your Children About Cancer

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One morning last week I was taking our oldest, Sam, to school. We were talking about the day, and about how he had a math test coming up. I told him he was going to do great, as I turned up the radio which I had turned down to talk with him. As I turned it up, I heard these words coming from the local news station:

"Police say the man who shot his teacher and then himself last week was..."

For those who don't know, last week in downtown St. Louis, a former business student went into his former downtown school building and shot his former teacher. And then he turned the gun on himself. Sam doesn't watch a whole lot of news at six years old, so he had not heard about this incident... until now. I quickly turned on some music, but Sam had heard enough. "Dad, what did that lady just say?"

"What lady, Sam?" I said like an idiot. Huh?! Whut?!

"Did someone shoot a teacher and then himself?"

"Um... well... yes."

"Why?"

And there I was... trapped like a fart in an elevator. How do I soften this blow? I was at an utter loss for words, until I realized the only thing I could do: I told the truth... or at least a version of the truth, because how can you really put motive onto someone who does something so heinous?

"Sam, you know how sometimes your body breaks down, like when you're sick with a bad cold?"

"Yep."

"Well sometimes it happens with your brain, too. Sometimes people just lose control of their mind, and just don't know what you can, and what you shouldn't do anymore. And this person, who was mommy and daddy age, went into a school a long way away from here, and he shot a teacher that he used to have and didn't like. And he did it because he lost control of his brain, and didn't know that you are never, ever supposed to do that. Does that make sense?"

"Yes."

"Are you okay?"

"Yep." (At this point, he jumps out of the car to go into his building. No hug. No kiss. Rats.)

"Bye Dad! Love you!"

And once again, children prove that they know and understand way more than we think they do, and they are way tougher than we adults will ever be.

I once produced a documentary for St. Louis Children's Hospital. It was to be given to parents who have a baby die in the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU for short. We talked to a really brilliant chaplain named Hal. Not having children of my own at this time, I was curious: "What do you tell other children in the family when a devastation like this occurs?"

His eyes got really big and he smiled. "You would be shocked at what children are able to handle. They tend to turn into caretakers of their parents, reversing the roles. They know and understand that their parents take care of them, and when they see their parents in need, they are there to comfort mom and dad, and even younger siblings. It's quite remarkable."

When I went through cancer 11 years ago, I didn't have children, so they never had to see their dad go through hell. This is not the case for what seems like an inordinate number of my friends who have battled cancer in the last 12 months. I personally know four people my age with children who have gone through some brutal regimens of chemotherapy and surgery and radiation. And every one of my friends says the same thing: "My children were way stronger than me. They were instinctually brave. And while I had absolutely no idea how to break my diagnosis to them, the best way to do it was just to be honest."

Anyone who has ever had a child lie to them has felt the sting and anger of what that means. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that this knife cuts both ways. Your children trust you with their very lives, and they do it without question. There is never... ever... a time when we should make them start to question. Never. Never. Ever. The conversation can start out as simply as, "I'm sick, I'm going to be sick for a while, but I'm taking lots of medicine and I'm working hard to get better for you."

I once talked with a lady whose father died of cancer when she was 12. She's 50 now, and she's still angry at him from hiding it from her until he went into the hospital and never came out. I know he thought he didn't want to burden her, but she has carried a greater burden for almost 40 years... the burden of not fully being able to forgive her own dad.

Both of my boys, ages 6 and 4, know that I had cancer, and they know that I have to get checked every year to make sure that it doesn't come back. In fact, they have even come with me on a couple of occasions to meet the oncologist, Dr. Needles, who "saved Daddy's life." (The doc gets a huge kick out of this, by the way.)

So know that a golden rule that we learned in kindergarten is still a golden rule: Honesty is the best policy. Do not be afraid to tell your children if you hear those three words. It will do more for your healing than you can possibly imagine. And besides, they may in some strange way get a kick out of it. The time my boys found a bald picture of me from treatment, I got this reaction:

"You were bald?! Cooooooooooooool!"

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