Being a parent and receiving a cancer diagnosis is hard. Being the child of a parent receiving a cancer diagnosis is hard, too. I've been on both sides of this particular "cancer fence" -- I've been the child, and I've been the parent.
There is no "better time" to receive a cancer diagnosis. A "better time" does not exist.
However, having said this, when you receive a cancer diagnosis while raising young children, the challenges are indeed much different and in some ways more difficult.
My children were not young children when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. They were young adults, the youngest being eighteen. In some ways this made things easier. On the other hand, they had just witnessed firsthand their grandmother's illness and death from metastatic breast cancer, so in a sense, they knew way too much.
When a parent with young children receives a cancer diagnosis, there may be a lot of uncertainty as to how much to tell the kids, and, if they're really young, if they should be told at all. Of course, this is a very personal decision. There is no right answer.
As an educator and a parent, I believe in being truthful with age-appropriate information when explaining to kids about cancer. If children are of an age where they can understand a simple but honest explanation, I believe they can and should be told at least some of the truth.
Kids are really good at figuring out when something is seriously wrong anyway. They may hesitate to talk about their worries or be afraid and unsure of what to ask. They may keep such feelings, fears and questions to themselves, which may or may not lead to those feelings coming out in unexpected or inappropriate behaviors at some point.
Also, kids are really good at imagining things on their own if they don't receive an explanation. Sometimes they really do imagine the worst when they don't need to.
Don't we all?
Kids deserve to know what's going on, again, with age-appropriate information and detail.
Here are my tips for talking to children about a cancer diagnosis in your family:
1. Decide who is the best person to tell the child/children. This might be the parent with the cancer diagnosis, the other parent or another family member (or close friend) entirely.
2. Although there is no good time to break the news, try to pick an appropriate moment to have the initial cancer discussion when you can devote the time and extra mental energy it will undoubtedly require.
3. Start with a simple explanation and then see what questions or concerns come up.
4. Take the lead from each child. Offer reassurance as honestly as possible and always give each child an opportunity to state his or her feelings and ask questions. They might need to process the information for a while, so be sure to "check back in" frequently.
5. You don't need to tell every cancer detail, but don't feel you must hold everything back, either. Find the right balance for each child.
6. Remember each child, even in the same family, might need more or less information and that's fine. It doesn't always boil down to age. Some younger children might want and handle more information better than older ones.
7. Refrain from over-protecting your children. Kids can handle a whole lot more than we think they can. They don't necessarily need protection all the time from the bad things in life, and trying to protect them may, in fact, be more harmful in the long run.
9. Asking for help can be hard, and sometimes asking for help after a cancer diagnosis can be even harder, for some reason. Don't be afraid to seek professional help if needed.
10. Tell yourself as many times as necessary that it's OK for your children to see you vulnerable. This one's harder than it sounds.
11. Don't underestimate your children's ability to cope -- with your guidance, of course.
12. Do the best you can. Remember, parenting before cancer is hard at times. Parenting during cancer treatment is hard at times. Parenting when cancer treatment ends will be hard at times, too.
Being honest with children may help bring your family closer as everyone rallies together to help. Even young children are capable of exhibiting tremendous understanding, empathy and compassion. Sometimes we just need to allow them the chance to do so.
Each cancer diagnosis is unique. Each family is unique, as is each child.
Each family dealing with a cancer diagnosis must decide what's uniquely right for them.
What tips would you add?
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