How to Prepare Your Child When You Have Cancer

September 10, 2015
Vinita Mathew, MD, FAAPMR

Dr. Mathew is a physiatrist, a physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation. She helps improve people’s lives by treating pain and disabilities. Most importantly, she is an ovarian cancer survivor. She is an active participant in the American Cancer Society Relay For Life and is the Survivor Chair for the events held in Naperville, IL in 2015. She recently published a book about how she survived cancer with love, hope, faith, and support called I Chose Hope: How My Young Family And I Fought Cancer.

A few days before my 36th birthday in 2013, I felt a mass in my right lower abdomen. I did not experience pain or any associated symptoms. I soon faced a diagnosis of stage III germ cell ovarian cancer. Battling cancer was especially challenging while caring for my two boys, Isaac and Elijah. They were 5 years and 18 months old at the time of my diagnosis.

Most parents instinctively want to protect their children from sorrow and hardship. Some prefer keeping the diagnosis of cancer to themselves. However, some children can sense when their family is going through difficulties. They may draw the wrong conclusions from what they see and experience, which may hurt them.

According to Wendy Harpham, MD, in When a Parent Has Cancer, you need to prepare what you want to tell your children about your cancer and develop trust. Children need information about significant changes that may affect them. Dr. Harpham advises to use the word “cancer” when talking to children older than 5 but not to make it sound like you have a simple scratch. If you do, then they may think every scratch is cancer.

In Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent Is Sick, Paula Rauch, MD, and Anna Muriel, MD, explain how to talk about cancer in age-appropriate words. For toddlers who do not understand complex words or the concept of time, telling them you have cancer may not concern them. For children in elementary school, learning that a parent has cancer is stressful. The authors suggest explaining your diagnosis, treatment, and the visible side effects of chemotherapy. Telling children what to expect as you go through chemotherapy will reassure them and help them adjust.

I spoke to my older son, Isaac, about the “bad cells” called cancer. I explained how the medications I would take to get rid of those cells would make my hair fall out.

The experts also advise to let your children know that even if you are sick, they will be following their daily rituals. Following a ritual or routine helps children feel safe and secure. Things such as carpooling, making meals, and arranging play dates are important for maintaining a routine when you are sick. share on twitter

My husband and I knew we needed more help because our children were young and would be facing some big changes. My husband is a cardiologist. His mother had died of breast cancer in 2009. His father works full time. My parents, on the other hand, live in New Zealand. They came as soon as they heard the news and stayed with us until I completed chemotherapy. This helped us make sure there weren’t too many changes in the boys’ daily routines. Our amazing nanny even used to stay late to take them to their various afterschool activities.

Isaac is 8 years old now, and he knows the impact of cancer. He remembers that his grandma died from breast cancer and his mother survived ovarian cancer. After attending multiple Relay For Life events and participating in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure with our extended family, he also has a fair understanding of fundraising and donation.

Telling your children you have cancer and making them a part of your journey can help build confidence and develop good coping skills. share on twitter 

I remember one specific moment during treatment. Eli was crying because I had become too weak to carry him, and Isaac told his brother, “Don’t cry Eli. Mommy loves you even if she is sick.”

Teach them to accept reality, without giving up hope.


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