June 14, 2023

Telling Your Kid You Have Cancer


I have yet to figure out how Wendy S. Harpham, MD, FACP manages her life as a doctor, cancer patient, author, and mom of three kids. She’s a super warm, kind person too.

In the parenting section of my book Everything Changes, I recommend her award-winning book When a Parent has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children which comes with the kid’s book Becky and the Worry Cup. (She’s the author of many other books too including The Hope Tree.) I asked Wendy to guest on my blog today about talking to kids about your cancer:

“My children were 1, 3, and 5 years old when I was first diagnosed with lymphoma. I’ve been in and out of treatment ever since. Since I didn’t get well (and I didn’t die), I was stuck dealing with the double challenges of kids and cancer. Here are my top two tips for raising healthy children When a Parent has Cancer:

1) Establish and maintain open lines of communication. Studies confirm that even when parents try to keep their illness a secret, children know something is wrong. And the fact of the matter is this: Children WILL draw conclusions based on what they are seeing and hearing, and what they know.

Open lines of communication create opportunities every day for adults to guide children toward accurate, yet healthy and hopeful interpretations of the events, and toward adaptive coping skills.

2) Always tell the truth, couched in love, hope and support. Sons and daughters need to be able to believe their parents in order to grow up into adults who, in turn, can trust others. With the added stress and uncertainty of illness, being unfailingly honest gives children buoys of assurance in a sea of uncertainty.

Whether parents mean to or not (and whether they believe it or not), to lie to children is to say, “Dear, I don’t think you can handle the truth.” Conversely, by telling the truth, parents send children a powerful message, “I respect you. I believe you can handle my illness. You can handle the truth.’” What better way to build a child’s self-esteem?

The greatest gift we can give our children is not protection from the world, but the confidence and tools to cope and grow with all that life has to offer.”

How long did you wait between when you were diagnosed and when you told your kid? Do you think your kids knew something was up? How did you explain it to them? Did you brainstorm much about what you would say, or did you kind of wing it? How did the conversation go?

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  1. charissa Says:
    June 14th, 2009 at 6:12 PM

    My son first met my husband just a few weeks after his stem cell transplant, so even before Rick and I were dating, Jaden knew that he had cancer. I know its a different situation that what Wendy talks about above, but the tips she gives are the same.

    When we found out Ricks cancer had come back, we were totally upfront and honest with my son (10 at the time). I remember sitting at the dinner table, and Jaden asking how the appointment with the doctor went. We told him right away that Rick had cancer again. He calmly replied “Ok, so what do we do?”

    He came along for some doctors appointments, and always asked lots of questions. It wasnt always easy, but Ricks patience and honesty helped Jaden so much, he always knew what was going on, that it was ok to be scared, and that no matter what Rick loved him and would always do his best to be there for him.

  2. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    June 14th, 2009 at 10:29 PM

    What was the lead up like, Charissa, to the dinner table conversation you and Rick had when you talked to your son about the return of Rick’s cancer? In the time between the appointment and the conversation did you and Rick talk at all about what you would say, when you would say it, how you would say it?

  3. Ed Says:
    June 14th, 2009 at 10:55 PM

    My daughter was 8 when I was diagnosed. We told her everything from the beginning - about the surgery, about the chemotherapy, about the side effects, about the recovery. She was extremely understanding, partly because the previous year we had supported a friend of her’s Mom in a bout with breast cancer. The one thing that we neglected to tell her was that cancer was not contagious. We found that out about six months after the chemo ended, when she announced that good news after learning it a school!

    She never once shied away from snuggling with me, kissing me goodnight, or anything else. To this day, her courage and love amazes me. I get teary just recalling that day two years ago.

  4. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    June 14th, 2009 at 11:03 PM

    Ed, I am teary just reading your comment, and if you have read my blog much, you’ll know that I’m not a big cryer. That is such an instructive point you make about being sure to tell your kid that cancer is not contagious. Thanks!

  5. charissa Says:
    June 15th, 2009 at 3:11 PM

    For us it was sort of a no-brainer. Jaden knew Rick had gone to the doctor because he hadnt been feeling well, and knew that it was a possibility. He knew that Rick had a history with the disease. I honestly dont think we ever discussed how to tell him, because we just wanted to be totally honest.

    I think the fact that Jaden knew from the start that cancer was a part of Rick’s life made it much easier. I dont know how we would have handled it if it was a first diagnosis.

  6. Shannon Says:
    June 15th, 2009 at 7:16 PM

    Two of my children do not live here with me full time, so I had to tell them over the phone. I had told thier dad (my ex) immediatly but had put off telling them. Finally about a week later the night before my first surgery I told them. They are 13 and 14. I just put it out there, “um, guys I went to the Docter last week and he said blah, blah, blah….” I just spoke to them as plainly as I could….finally after a few seconds of silence, my 14 year old son said “what’s a thyroid?” and his sister quickly took the reins and explained to him about the endocrine system. Her only question was if I could survive without it….

    We told the two that lived here the day I was diagnosed. We were very up front with them as well. I think the 16yr old took it hardest, the 9 year old just wanted to know if I was going to die. When we told him no, he gave me a hug and asked if he could over to a friends house.

    I guess I sounded upbeat enough about my situation. At the end of the day, I wanted them to know what was going on but not to know that Mommy and Daddy were worried and axious about it.

  7. Michelle Says:
    July 7th, 2009 at 1:34 AM

    I’m late to the party on this one but had to put in my two cents. Our son was two and a half when my husband was diagnosed. There are people who would choose not to say anything to a child that young or even years older. We talked about Daddy’s “owies” and going to the doctor for medicine. I was shocked even about the things that he put together for himself. For example, my husband wore a purple arm band for Hodgkins. Our son figured out that that arm band was on the opposite side of my husband’s port. He would actually check “for Daddy’s purple side” before hugging, snuggling or asking to be picked up. Now, tell me, isn’t that proof that if we don’t talk to our kids (granted, in an age appropriate way), they will find their own logic? We were just lucky that our son was close to accurate.

  8. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 7th, 2009 at 4:29 AM

    Michelle’s comment is really poignant. I followed her link and discovered that she is the author of two books for kids whose parents have cancer: The Very Best Parts of My Mommy and The Very Best Parts of My Daddy. She also has a blog about parenting with cancer that I think you all should check out http://www.livingsunnysideup.com/ Thanks for your comment Michelle.

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