Talking to kids about cancer

It was last year when I saw this lovely lady, 62 years of age for treatment of ovarian cancer. She was a private, composed and well-presented person. Her husband died recently. “Doctor, please promise you will not talk to my children about my cancer diagnosis”.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, patients are sometimes unsure about discussing the situation with their children, young or adult. Some patients may want to delay the conversation or prefer not to tell them at all. This is quite understandable.

Parents can feel overwhelmed by their own anxiety and fears, and may want to shield their children from feeling those emotions as well. Cancer Council Victoria has an evidence-based, practical guide to give you a starting point on how to begin the conversation. The guide explains there are many reasons that a straightforward and honest discussion can make children of all ages feel more secure as side effects can be obvious once cancer treatment begins. I refer to the advice here which are explained further in the guide. When speaking to your children:

talking cancer

  1. Tell them the basics in words they understand
  2. Find out what they already know
  3. Be honest and open
  4. Tell them what to expect
  5. Ask them if they want to tell anyone
  6. Balance hope with reality
  7. Offer a listening ear
  8. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
  9. Show your love and emotion

Even grown-up, adult children are often scared of the possibility of losing a parent. Your adult children may have an increased risk of certain cancers now that there is an established family history, and they will need to know to make their own decisions about future cancer screening and genetic testing.

In my experience, once a patient has the conversation with their children they have not regretted taking an open approach. In many cases, it can bring a family much closer together. Bringing along your adult children to a consultation can also help them feel involved and helpful.

Still not sure what the best approach is? Each person handles a cancer diagnosis in their own way. If you don’t want to talk, your wishes will be respected.

My primary loyalty as a health professional is with my patient. I would not even remotely consider talking to relatives without my patient’s consent.

I do understand that patients may need to choose the setting and timing carefully to make such conversations possible. However, I make patients also aware that the damage done from “not talking” can be considerable.

Sometimes, and to start with, talking about your fears and concerns with other patients who are going through a similar experience can be easier. I can certainly introduce my patients to other patients experiencing similar situations.

Visit talking to kids about cancer for more information.

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