Figuring out what’s really up with your parents is child’s play. Just check their text messages or eavesdrop on a phone call. That’s what one child whispered during a support group hosted by oncology social worker Krista Nelson at Portland’s Providence Cancer Institute.
“I’m always amazed at how much kids really do know about what’s going on,” Nelson said. “Even when their parents don’t tell them.”
That’s why it’s important to be real with children when it comes to news as important as a family cancer diagnosis. If you don’t tell your children, they’ll likely either sniff it out themselves, or even make up their own facts and explanations about the big mystery at hand.
“Parents are afraid it’s going to be very hard on the children and they don’t want to share,” said surgeon and author Nathalie Johnson of Legacy Cancer Institute and Legacy Breast Health Centers. “But children sense the stress in the home, and their imagination can take them to far darker places than reality often is.”
Young children might blame their own misbehavior, or worry that cancer is “catching.” Adolescent girls may start wondering about their own risk. And, naturally, everyone will worry about the very worst.
“A new cancer diagnosis is a scary and uncertain time for the whole family,” said Susan Stearns of Clark County’s Pink Lemonade Project.
“We usually suggest that parents are honest with their children in an age-appropriate way,” Johnson said.
Fortunately, the overall news about breast cancer is appropriate for any age: “There’s a 99 percent cure rate at this point,” Stearns said. (Other cancers are “trickier,” she added.)
But parents and children still have a lot to discuss.
“It’s a time to teach children how to manage when life isn’t perfect,” Johnson said. “One of the things my mom taught me is, we may want to shield children from adversity but we should be giving children tools to deal with it. We all have adversity in our lives.”
Nelson’s family support groups at Providence have been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, but when they’re in full swing, kids split into age groups and use different therapist-led techniques to explore their feelings about having a parent with cancer. The littler ones draw pictures and learn to name emotions. Older ones who already have the vocabulary share hopes and fears.
Regardless of intense emotions, household changes and an uncertain future, here’s what children of every age want to hear, according to all these experts: You will be OK. I will make sure that you are always cared for and loved.
“If Mom has been diagnosed in a metastatic state, it might be possible for kids to understand and appreciate the time they have left,” Johnson said. “Kids handle things a lot better when they’re informed.”