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Inside Story: How to talk to your children about your cancer

We have the results from the biopsy back. I’m sorry, it’s cancer”.  I could see the doctor was still talking – her lips moving.  No words came through the haze.  Me – with cancer.  So many thoughts came rushing through my head about my job, my life, and then suddenly, with a thud, MY KIDS

All of a sudden it hits me: I have cancer and now I have to tell my children”.

To tell or not to tell

Parents may struggle with the idea of telling their children that mom or dad has cancer. It seems to go against our nature as parents to share upsetting news and usually parents feel reluctant to share the diagnosis because they feel protective about making their children sad and worried.  Research and clinical experience tells us children benefit from honest, age-appropriate information about a parents’ cancer.  When left without, children fill in the blanks, make assumptions and don’t feel able to ask questions.

Tips for Telling

  • Talk to a friend, family member or counselor about telling your children. This helps you process your feelings about it before sharing the news with the children and help you feel more in control.
  • Set aside a time when things are quiet for the whole family to be together when you are not feeling rushed
  • Share the diagnosis simply and honestly, using the word cancer.
  • Let them know what to expect in the days or weeks to come and how it will affect them.
  • Encourage them to ask any questions to be asked now or at any time going forward.

Supporting them

  • Let their school know and anyone of significance (e.g. coach) and let your child know who has been told so they can reach out when they need to when they are away from you AND so that those people can understand any emotional or behavioural changes they see in your child
  • Allow each child to process the information in their own way. Some children have many questions and require details while others may simply have one big question and need time alone to sort out the answer.
  • Remember that you are the expert on your on child. Parents often report that although their child showed signs of the cancer impacting their lives, the child reacted in a way that was in keeping with their personality and coping style. IF you see a sign that concerns you, reach out for help from professionals at your treatment hospital or at Wellspring.
  • Help them maintain their routine as much as possible and when this is not possible, try to give them a say in how things change, who will help etc. in order to help them feel more in control

Supporting you so you can support them

  • Remember, children do better when their parents are managing their own emotional needs.
  • Parenting through cancer, though challenging, is possible and families can even look back with pride about their coping and support for one another.
  • If you are a family coping with cancer, know that there is help and support. You don’t have to do it alone.

By: Laura Pasqualino, MSW, RSW, program leader and consultant at Wellspring Cancer Support Foundation

Laura Pasqualino holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Toronto and has over 15 years’ experience in both hospital and community settings. Laura has been in private practice for 6 years providing counselling and support to individuals with a variety of problems, but has a special interest in eating disorders, medical illness, grief and loss. She blends Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Emotion Focused Therapy for a client-centred approach. Laura is also a consultant for the Wellspring Cancer Support Network where she facilitates many programs ranging from our family programming, pediatric oncology programming, support programs and the Healing Journey.


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