Talking to kids about cancer isn’t easy, but if a close friend or relative has been diagnosed, I guarantee cancer is on their minds in one way or another.
One pretty day several summers ago, my daughter, age six at the time, made a cute craft box at camp designed to keep her prayer requests.
As I ooo’ed and awe’ed over her decorating, it took my breath away when she removed the lid.
A yellow star crafted out of construction paper made her top prayer request clear as day.
She prayed I will not get colon cancer ever again.
It warmed my heart to see her thinking of me. But it also signaled we needed to talk more about my cancer and unpack her feelings about it.
I didn’t realize she was so aware of my cancer, and that it had made its way into her personal prayers. We needed to talk!
Talking to Kids about Cancer
As long as my daughter can remember, I’ve been a cancer survivor.
She’s not watched me fight active disease, but she’s seen me go through major surgeries and hospital stays, come home with wraps around my arms after blood draws and suffer from long-lasting treatment side effects.
And while it’s somewhat normal for me at this point, I assume it’s normal for her, yet she often shows me that it’s not super common to have a mom be a cancer survivor. She shows me in subtle ways she needs to talk about what it’s like being a kid with a cancer-surviving parent.
So here’s a few ways I’ve learned to approach talking about cancer with my kid:
#1 – Welcome her cancer questions.
Children are naturally curious, and when something’s new or different about the household, they quickly pick up on it.
It’s helpful for kids to know they can always ask questions – even if it’s personal, hard to discuss or related to cancer. Kids are often more resilient than we think.
Two ways I’ve coped with the abundance of questions, especially the mix of private and personal ones.
- Set personal boundaries. I pre-determine what I’m willing to share and what I’m not ready to talk about yet. This helps me not fear her questions or brush her off. If she asks something that crosses my personal boundary, I simply suggest a different topic. It’s taken me time to discern what should be discussed now, and what needs to wait based on her maturity. And the topics are ever-evolving just like she is. But, boundary-setting helps me feel comfortable keeping the conversation open. New at this? The book Boundaries is a game-changer and huge help.
- Initiate the questions myself. When we initiate talking to kids about cancer, it helps them know it’s OK to discuss it. This isn’t just the case for my daughter, but for my nieces and nephews too. I love watching kids light up when we give them permission to “go there” and ask about what may appear to be a sensitive, “off limits” conversation. Opening up the conversation also helps me guide it. I’ll ask my daughter what she thinks and feels about my cancer, and other questions like that. This book, “What Do I Tell the Kids” is a great resource and help!
#2 – Engage the creative side
Art, music, books, plays – all of this can be helpful when talking to kids about cancer (and really adults too!).
When it comes to hard, traumatic subjects, using creative arts can be very healing – regardless of age! And, it helps bring out conversations, feelings and emotions that may have otherwise stayed stuck inside of our heads.
My daughter’s camp craft showed me cancer was on her mind.
Cancer has also come up when she’s drawing stick figures or playing with Barbies.
I don’t push this cancer conversation on her, but I do encourage her to engage in the arts as much as possible. And then, I observe what comes out.
#3 – Give kids a sense of ownership and control
Cancer makes you feel out of control. This is unsettling no matter how old you are. It’s hard on adults AND kids.
One way we’ve coped with this is to regain some sense of control and ownership.
Here’s a few ideas I’ve done, or seen parents do, that can help with talking to kids about cancer and giving them ownership over their own stories:
- Let them be your “nurse” if you’re not feeling well at home.
- Let them talk freely about cancer through their artwork and playtime.
- Introduce them to other kids facing cancer or other kids who have parents with cancer (check out Camp Kesem – I’ve heard amazing things about this experience!)
- Get them cancer awareness t-shirts and let them choose when they wear them.
- Let them host fundraisers and events for awareness with their classes and teams.
- Ask them specifically to join your race or team if you’re participating in a cancer event.
- Encourage them to tell their story and how cancer impacted them – not just their loved one’s story.
- Take them to advocacy events to meet other kids so they see that your family isn’t the only one facing the disease. (Shameless plug for Call-on Congress if you’re a colon cancer fighter like me.)
- Read books written specifically to help adults talk to kids about cancer. This book, Talking to Children About Cancer (and its associated website) have a lot of great resources.
- Pray together and let them hear you talk to God about the diagnosis.
- If there’s a doctors appointment they can tag-along with to see your “cancer world,” let them go.
- When they’re older, there’s a variety of scholarships out there for kids who’ve had cancer, or kids who’s parents had cancer. (A Google search is the best way to find them or some local survivors, social workers and schools may be able to help too!)
#4 – Name and claim the emotions
Cancer is scary. It’s confusing and hard.
It’s unsettling and angering. Anyone touched by the disease will often carry these emotions.
Even if your family isn’t great at talking about feelings, cancer provides a good opportunity to start.
It’s important to identify, name and claim the negative (and maybe even positive!) emotions that come with the disease.
In the early days when my daughter first learned about cancer, it was a big, scary mean guy.
He wasn’t contagious, and she knew I do everything I can to fight him, kick him, hit him and keep him away.
Lately, we’ve moved on to one-word emotions. She can tell me cancer makes her sad because I almost died.
Even though this doesn’t make the cancer go away, it does disallow fear to have so much power.
We’ve been intentional about repeating the process, one time isn’t enough when dealing with emotions, kids and cancer. But building a regular “check in” with your kiddo to understand how he/she feels if you’re facing cancer can be very helpful.
#5 – Tap into professional counseling support
I’m a huge advocate of counseling and I think everyone should go at some point.
But even if that’s not feasible, I recommend someone in the family see a professional to get mental health support through cancer. Many health plans will even cover this as part of your treatment plans these days!
Professionals can help adults cope with cancer and give ideas for talking to kids about cancer.
Many times during my appointments with a counselor, I get parenting tips on how to face hard topics with my daughter.
Thanks to the evolution of survivorship care, many cancer teams are now asking about and offering mental health (also called psychosocial) support.
Some programs even include family members of the patient.
I encourage you to ask you doctors and nurses about this if they’ve not brought it up. If you’re insured, your health plan may likely include these benefits.
If you’re near a local Gilda’s Club, this can be a helpful place for the entire family to go (Noogie Land is awesome for kids). American Cancer Society also talks about importance of psychosocial support for families facing cancer.
There’s no shame in getting professional help.
While your body is fighting disease, it’s likely your mind will need a little help, too.
How About You?
These are some of my top 5 tips for talking to kids about cancer – but I know I’m not the only parent out there figuring this out!
I’d love to hear if you have other tips on how you talk about cancer with your kids, or what questions you have. Leave a comment or links to resources, we’re in this together!
*Note: I am not a licensed clinical professional, these are my personal ideas. And, these are not affiliate links, just helpful resources I’ve come across over the years.