Helping little ones deal with a loved one’s cancer
Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
When cancer strikes a loved one, we all deal with it differently. Some of us turn to God with faith in His plan, others turn away in anger. However, in the fight to battle cancer, it is often easy to overlook the tiny humans in our lives, counting on the resiliency of childhood to get them through the painful struggle of a loved one with cancer.
I’ve had a somewhat unique perspective on this, from being a pre-teen when my aunt was diagnosed with cancer, to being a young mother diagnosed with cancer. Before I get started, I want to take a minute to say there is no one “right” way to deal with the kiddos in your lives after cancer strikes. What works for you and your family, may not be right for another person. How your children cope will depend largely on their age and maturity. Also remember, the old cliché holds true – hindsight is 20/20 – if you feel you could have done something differently, don’t beat yourself up – you’re only human.
Age Appropriate Conversations
Back in 1992, when my precious Aunt Deede was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, my 11-year-old brain was simply not prepared for the impact – I don’t think any of us ever are prepared, regardless of age. Deede was more like a big sister to me than an aunt. I was at summer church camp when she was first diagnosed. We had known that she was sick for a while, but we didn’t know what was causing her illness. My mom, knowing I would want to know right away, called the camp and spoke to my counselor. God knew where He wanted me when I found out – my counselor was a medical student. In words that I could grasp, she explained the medicine to me, and together we prayed.
Fast-forward to 2008. I was 27 when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and pregnant to boot. To say I was a hormonal, emotional wreck may be the understatement of the century. I also had a little boy that had just turned two years old. He had no clue why Mommy was crying so much. When I had to go in for my thyroidectomy, we told him that I had “the bad sickness” in my neck, and the doctors had to take it out. We continued with this description through my radioiodine therapy. We also bought him a little doctor kit, which he brought with him to the hospital to visit me. It made him feel like he could help mommy. While his doctorly ministrations didn’t cure anything, the sweetness of his smile was a salve to my heart. Over the years, we have explained what “the bad sickness” actually is, and helped them understand how it affects the body.
Use words that the child can understand. Cancer is just a word to a two-year-old, but they understand words like bad and sick. By the time I was 11, I was already a little medical knowledge junkie, so using medical terms, somewhat simplified and explained, worked for me. These conversations must be tailored to the individual child. Also, look for clues that the child is withdrawing, or retreating inside themselves while you are talking. This is a scary conversation. Take a look at Telling Kids About Cancer for great information on how to have these conversations.
Explaining the Seriousness
Explaining how serious cancer is can be extremely tricky with kids. On one hand, you want to shield your child from the pain and worry, but on the other hand, you don’t want them to be blindsided if the worst is to occur. To be perfectly honest – I don’t have the right answer, I don’t know if anyone does. There is no one size fits all talk that will work. Just like how you discuss the disease depends on age, prognosis also plays a big role. With my diagnosis of thyroid cancer, we were fairly certain of a good outcome, despite the complication of the pregnancy. Cancercare.org also has some excellent information for helping you frame a conversation that your child can understand.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your oncologist, your child’s pediatrician, a clergy member, or other trusted figure. They may be able to offer you guidance in handling this difficult conversation. Be ready for questions and emotions and let your love for your child guide your heart. If you have been recently diagnosed with cancer, take a look at our Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patient Resources for some helpful information in this journey.