Parents With Cancer: How To Talk To Your Kids About The Disease
You need to tailor what you say depending on the age of your child. Stay realistic but don’t let go of your optimism
It was yet another coffee evening, mellow, comfortable and laced with gossip. Suddenly, Shehla looked grey as she looked up from her coffee, enough for me to stop mid-sentence.
“I have cancer and I don’t know what to do”, she said.
It took me more than a split second to recover. She continued, “Oh, I am alright, don’t worry about me. I just don’t know how to tell the kids their mom has cancer. It will destroy their lives.” She was close to tears now.
“Take a deep breath,” I told my best friend. “Let’s finish coffee before we deal with something as monumental as the big C. And let’s order some cake as well.”
She grinned. Turns out that’s the best thing I could have done at that moment. Later, we discussed what it is that we could do, to prepare the kids handle my best friend’s tryst with her own destiny.
Too caught up to read? Listen to the story here:
Take Your Time
It’s best to let the implications of what you’ve discovered sink in. If you are scared or upset or unsure about what to say to your kids, it’s best to wait a while until you are more in control of your own emotions.
While it’s okay to break down and cry in front of the kids, and it will happen at some point, the first conversation needs you to be relaxed, calm, and optimistic.
Cancer is a scary word, scarier than it sometimes needs to be. Your doctor will outline your treatment plan, and talk to you about the changes it will bring to your lifestyle. Talk to a friend till you know you are ready to face the kids.
Do your own emotional housekeeping, before you turn to help the kids.
Hell, you are a parent and you’ve survived pregnancy and childbirth and baby blues and 2 am feeds and tyrannical toddlers and belligerent teenagers. Cancer isn’t much stronger than any of these.
Rope in the Spouse or Significant Other
If you are a two-parent household, make sure the other parent is in sync with what you are going to say. It’s best if both of you sit down together with the kids and talk. In case you are a single parent, ask a friend your kids know and trust.
Just like Shehla asked me, because I am the “uber cool maasi” who can bake a jar of Nutella into cake.
Prepare yourself, and your partner for the conversation ahead of time. Think about what you want to say, and think about any possible questions your kids can have. Think of answers that are thoughtful, reassuring and optimistic.
Also make sure you let them know that there’s an open channel of communication: that you will tell them the truth, that your lives will change, that you are going to be unwell for some time, but most importantly, you will make it through, because you are a family.
You will need to tailor what you say depending on the age of your child.
For younger children, you may decide to talk of just being ill, or having a booboo. For a child five years or older, you will need more age appropriate terms to explain your diagnosis. Older children will google, so try and make sure your explanation is more detailed and lucid.
Stay realistic, but don’t let go of your optimism. Remind them, and yourself, that in today’s day and age, cancer is not a death sentence. And that you will, as a family, fight and emerge triumphant in your fight against the disease.
For Shehla’s older one, a Harry Potter buff, cancer was a Dementor, and the family would keep summoning a Patronus to scare it away.
Cancer is Not Contagious
Smaller children are known to worry if they will “catch” your cancer. Remember it is you who has been paranoid about germs and hand-washing. So reassure them that cancer is not caused by or spread by touching or kissing.
It isn’t unusual for children to feel responsible for your illness. Reassure them, often if required, that there’s nothing they have done or said, to make you unwell.
No amount of “she’s a horrible mom/dad, and I wish I had a better mom/dad” refrains can cause cancer, make sure your kids understand that.
Talk About The Effect Your Illness Will Have on The Family
Prepare them for the treatment, and tell them that it will make you sicker than you are, before it makes the cancer go away. Talk to them about the possible side effects they may see you go through.
They will see you battle hair loss, fatigue, nausea, and weight loss. Tell them that these side effects mean that your treatment is working.
Discuss changes to routine. Reassure them that they will continue to go to school and continue to go on play dates. Tell them that there will be days when you will be too exhausted to drop them to school, or take them out for pizza, because the disease may be unpredictable.
Reassure them that even if you can’t do what you did all the time as a family, they will be taken care of. And loved. Same as always.
Tell them they can help you if they want to. They can visit you in the hospital; they can help you feel better.
You will be surprised how wonderful a head massage from a six-year-old feels or astonished by the pride the eight-year-old will feel, in taking care of mommy, or daddy. Let them be a part of your recovery, all of you deserve it.
Tell them they can talk to their friends if they want to, or to an adult they trust. You may want to give their best friend’s mom a heads up, and also their class teacher. You may also want to involve the grandparents. Yes, there may be histrionics, but they just might be the support system you need.
Be Open and Honest
Make sure you keep the kids in a constant conversation about your health.
There will be days when you will be too exhausted to do anything, and there will be days when you will bet your last dime that you want to die. Those are the days your significant other or friends will take over. They will tell the kids you’re having the blues.
And one day later, you will be back to your normal, happy self. Believe that.
More than anything else, tell them that it’s okay to feel angry, sad or upset.
At some point the dreaded word will come up, and you will be asked if you’re going to die. Be open, honest, and at ease with your feelings before you address the question.
Shehla said “not if I can help it”.
Talk to them, of how cancer is curable, and how the doctors will do their best, and how you will give it your best shot. That you are not dying, but if at any point you think you are going to, you will let them know.
Above all, tell the children you love them, and always will. And that it is from their love that you will derive the strength to fight the disease, and beat it too.
Get All The Help You Can
Remember, this is your fight against the big C, you will need all the reinforcements you can get.
In case you are unable to cope, there are always support groups, and professional counsellors. You will find support in the community; ask your friends and neighbours. Look online. Ask your treating oncologist for a recommendation. Your paediatrician will also be happy to recommend a counsellor for the children, if required.
Remember, it takes a village to raise a child, and this is the time to ask for help. Best of luck!
PS: As for Shehla, she’s doing well now. I’ve had to bake my extra special Nutella cake for her girls twice, and I’ve had to buy her a red lipstick once. The girls have been happy with the occasional weekend at Naani’s house, and one at mine. They don’t mind the trips to the hospital either. Day after tomorrow, we will all help Shehla choose a wig. It hasn’t been easy for anyone, it wasn’t supposed to be. But there’s nothing stronger and more beautiful than love and laughter and family.
(Dr Shibal Bhartiya is Senior Consultant, Ophthamology Services at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurgaon.)
(In consultation with Dr Samir Parikh, Director, Dept of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, and Dr Bela Sharma, Senior Consultant, Dept of Preventive Health, at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram)
(Shehla’s name has been changed for anonymity. She is the inspiration behind this article.)
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