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Our Take: Beacon experts share how to talk with your children about a cancer diagnosis

We heard the news that Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, is dealing with a cancer diagnosis. She has talked about the struggle of sharing this news with her children in a caring, intentional way. Members of our Beacon Health System team regularly work with parents who are navigating this difficult circumstance, so we reached out to them for their perspectives and advice. 

Rebekah Tucker, Beacon Cancer Care

Rebekah Tucker, LCSW, Oncology Social Worker
Beacon Cancer Care, Memorial Hospital

For parents who are already struggling with their own emotions, the initial reaction to a cancer diagnosis may be to protect your children from any news that might be upsetting. However, the reality is that your children probably already sense that something is different. Parents who I work with at Beacon Cancer Care share how their children notice them being more distant, tearful, sad, having difficulty getting out of bed, or not doing things that they usually do. Our kids are insightful and resilient, and when they are given age-appropriate information along with the support and resources to process difficult news, it creates an opportunity to build trust and strengthen the parent-child relationship.

Providing basic information such as the diagnosis and plan for treatment is a good place to start. Invite your child to ask questions or talk about worries they might have and encourage them to come to you with these in the future. Answering these questions honestly and accurately is important. If you do not know the answer or are not sure how to respond, it is OK to say this and let them know that you will get back to them.

It’s also important to be thoughtful about when to share this information with your children. I met with a mother recently who had just received a diagnosis of breast cancer and became worried that when she shared the news with her kids, they would immediately think that she was dying and that their family would become homeless. We processed the benefits of waiting to talk with her children until she had a better idea of what the treatment plan would be, and how this treatment might impact her family. She also recognized it was important to be aware of what was going on in her kids’ lives, and we discussed how her kids might be in a better position to process the news when their exams were finished, and they had some time off.

When you have these conversations with your kids, you may not be able to hide your emotions. This can be hard when you’ve always been the strong one, but this is OK. Give yourself grace as there is no perfect scenario in this incredibly imperfect situation. Ultimately, your children know that you are trying to make the best decisions for your family.

Part of my role at Beacon Cancer Care is to offer support to parents on their cancer journey so they know they are not alone and connect them with resources, including mental health resources. Often, there are so many medical appointments that it feels like adding one more appointment is just too much. However, when our mental health is cared for, we improve our emotional health and reduce our level of stress. Children tend to worry just as parents do, but when a child knows that their parent is receiving support themselves, this also tends to reduce the stress that a child might be experiencing. We have mental health resources in our community that can help, and there are cancer survivor support groups throughout our region where patients can connect with other parents who have had to share similar news. I encourage parents to take advantage of these self-care resources. When a parent cares for their own mental health, they are also caring for the mental health of their child.

Lastly, I encourage parents to ensure that their children have a network of support in place. This could include the school social worker, a counselor, a spiritual leader, specific family members or friends who can be a support to the child and family. We have wonderful resources in our community for children with parents who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, such as Camp Kesem, where children can find support from others who are having similar experiences and worries related to their parent’s health. Children are resilient, and with support, they will be able to grow even through this challenging time.

Tracy Byler, Beacon Children’s Hospital

Tracy Byler, CCLS
Certified Child Life Specialist at Beacon Children’s Hospital

It is important to tell your children about your diagnosis as soon as possible. Giving honest answers to their questions is best, but also be intentional on what information you share so you don’t overwhelm them. Key information is best during this initial conversation. Children may be emotional and even act out in various ways, but trying to hide something as big as a cancer diagnosis with them could impact their trust in you. You also don’t want them imagining a worse situation if they sense something is wrong.

Here are some other important reminders:

  • Allow children time to be children, play is so very important, it is their way of learning and coping, it is their work.
  • Reassure children that there will always be someone to take care of them and keep them safe.
  • Encourage children to ask questions – give truthful answers but keep the details to a minimum until they ask for them.
  • Keep a regular routine whenever possible – meal times, activities, bedtime, etc.
  • Use a doll or drawings to help them understand any physical changes in you that are about to occur such as loss of hair, alterations to your body, rehab, etc.

Your child may ask if you are going to die, so be prepared to answer that question. The honest answer is that no one really knows the answer, so you could reassure them that you intend to fight this cancer and plan to live.

Following your conversation, keep an eye open for signs that your child is not coping well, such as returning to old habits or actions they had once outgrown. Be observant about how well they are able to sleep at night and if they have they let their grades drop or you notice disruptive outbursts. These are all signs that your child may need additional support to process this life experience.

Beacon Cancer Care: We never give up

Beacon’s Cancer Care team includes experienced nurse navigators who guide patients and their families in managing a treatment plan that can include connecting you with therapists and social workers. Our patient-first care includes helping you understand how to cope with the emotional stresses that come with a cancer diagnosis.  Learn more

About Heidi Prescott

Passionate about writing her whole life, Heidi Prescott joined Beacon Health System in 2015 and currently serves as Senior Media Relations Strategist. A former newspaper journalist who has experience in TV, radio, magazines and social media, Heidi loves storytelling, photography and spending time in nature.