Talking to Children About Cancer

5 min read  |  March 06, 2020  | 

Often, people associate cancer with older age. Sometimes, however, the disease strikes people in the prime of their lives when they still have young children at home. And, when that happens, how do you tell your children that their mom or dad has cancer?

Cristina Pozo-Kaderman, Ph.D. has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of cancer patients with children in her career. As a clinical psychologist with Cancer Support Services at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, she helps her patients navigate the emotionally taxing road of cancer survivorship. But the children have a special place in her heart.

“I decided to work in this area because when I was a child, my mom was diagnosed with cancer,” Dr. Pozo-Kaderman says. “So, personally I can remember very clearly the fear of my mom going for surgery and the fear that she would die.”

She made a pact that if her mom survived that she would dedicate her life to working with people with cancer and their families. And that’s exactly what she did.

Children know when something is wrong

“I often think people assume that children either don’t understand or it’s better not to tell them,” says Dr. Pozo-Kaderman. “What I usually say to parents is that children will know there’s something going on that’s different because children are quite perceptive.”

It is better to get it out in the open and discuss the cancer diagnosis in a way that is age appropriate, she says. You should also consider your child’s maturity level and who they are as a person. Just like adults, some children will want a lot of information, and others not so much, she says.

There are a few things that Dr. Pozo-Kaderman says are very important to include:

  • Call it cancer. “Particularly for young kids, if you use the word sick, then sick is cancer,” she says. Then, if you tell your child that they are “sick” when they have a cold, they may worry that they also have cancer.
  • Repeatedly remind them that it’s not their fault. This is important especially in situations when the child is sick. If the parent’s immune system is compromised, he or she may need to stay away from the child, or if the parent feels very sick or is irritable.
  • Tell them cancer is not contagious. “For many young children and even sometimes adolescents, you want to make sure you say it’s not contagious because those fears are there and a lot of illnesses or sicknesses are contagious,” says Dr. Pozo-Kaderman.
  • Explain that the symptoms are due to treatment. When the patient is not feeling well, oftentimes it is the not the cancer itself rather the treatment side effects, particularly with chemotherapy.  Dr. Pozo-Kaderman explains that children need to know that their mom or dad isn’t getting sicker because the cancer is getting worse.
  • Reassure them that you are fighting for them. “I also think it’s important to let the child know that the parent is doing these treatments even when the side effects may be difficult because they want to live, they want to survive,” says Dr. Pozo-Kaderman.  “Communicate that so that the child understands that the parent is fighting really hard because they want to be there for them and they’re doing this expecting that the treatment is going to work.”

Focus on the quality time

In addition to communicating with your child, creating routines and expectations are vital. Dr. Pozo-Kaderman suggests creating a calendar that denotes which days the parents will undergo treatment. This way the child knows visually what days are going to be a little rough and what days their parent will feel a better, she says.

The calendar can also include special days that the children can look forward to spending with their mom and dad. “I usually tell the parents, given they may feel really fatigued, that instead of making it about quantity make it about quality of time,” she says.  “Find things that you can do that may not require as much energy, but you could still do and maybe pick it on the days when you’re feeling better.”

She also encourages parents that when it is possible, if the kids are at different developmental stages to do different things with each child.

Communication is key

Remind your child that you are there to answer any questions they may have and that they can talk to you if they are worried or afraid.  Also, make sure to ask them regularly how they feel and if they need to talk about anything. This is especially true if you notice your child withdrawing or their behavior changes.

Dr. Pozo-Kaderman suggests talking to your child’s teacher and counselor at school and letting them know what is going on at home. “They may be the first ones to notice if there is a sign that the child is not coping well,” she says. “Sometime having a couple of sessions with the school counselor can really help.”

Natasha Bright is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.

Tags: cancer support, child psychiatry, Cristina Pozo-Kaderman, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

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