5 reasons you should talk to kids about cancer

Cancer Council NSW
Dominic and his late wife Louise.

Mother’s Day can be an especially tough time of year for children and families that have been impacted by cancer. Father of two, Dominic, from Sydney, explains why it is so important to talk to kids about cancer following his own experience after wife Louise died from breast cancer in 2019.

Louise was struggling with the idea of leaving her children behind. “She was having issues with anxiety and panic attacks, all stemming from her concern about the kids. Lou could always accept that mortality was on her doorstep, but she could never wrap her head around leaving her two babies behind,” her partner Dominic explains.

When Louise was diagnosed with cancer in June 2017, her children were aged just four and five. Dominic speaks of how hard it was to tell them that she was unwell, “When Lou’s cancer spread from her breast, we were talking about how we approach the news with the kids – and the situation we were in was now very serious. They knew Mummy was sick, but we hadn’t informed them how serious it was.” Louise had terminal cancer.

Dominic and Louise's son Noah

Dominic details common themes he found when trying to find the best way to talk to his children about cancer:

  • Start with questions to see what they already know
  • Don’t overload the detail
  • Make sure they understand it’s nobody’s fault
  • Assure them they will be looked after no matter what
  • Talk to them at their comprehension/age level but don’t sugar coat it
  • Love the hell out of your little stinky monkeys

“One of the things kids often worry about is that they will catch cancer – they can still have cuddles, it’s not contagious,” says Jenni Bruce from Cancer Council NSW’s Cancer Information Team.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, adults are sometimes hesitant to discuss the situation with children.

“Parents and other adults can feel overwhelmed by their own anxiety and fear, and their first thought may be to protect children from those same strong emotions,” says Jenni.

Jenni explains that there are many reasons why a straightforward and honest discussion can help children:

1. Secrecy can make things worse

“If they feel like you’re hiding something from them, it might bite you in the back,” says Dominic.

Children who are told about the illness of someone important to them tend to cope better than children who are kept in the dark. Trying to keep a diagnosis secret can be difficult and add to your own stress.

2. You can’t fool kids

Children are observant. No matter how hard you try to hide a cancer diagnosis, most children will suspect something is wrong. They will work out a secret exists, but that it should not be discussed. Not knowing the reason for the secret may leave them feeling powerless or disconnected from everyone else, without knowing why.

“Before we scheduled the chat with Noah, his teacher told us that during prayer time he had asked to pray for Mummy, because her cancer was back, and it was bad. We hadn’t told him this, but he knew. He had seen people at the house crying, flowers turning up, people whispering on the phone. It proved to us that we needed to explain to the kids every step of the way, to tell them that Mummy might die, that we were doing everything to keep her alive, we might succeed but we might not either,” Dominic explains.

3. Honesty can build trust with your child

Children can feel hurt if they suspect or discover they have not been told something important that affects their family. Hearing bad news is better than the worry they feel when they don’t know what is happening.

4. They might find out from someone else

Children often listen to adult conversations even when it seems like they are busy with their own activity and not paying attention. Overhearing news can make children feel upset and confused. Children may also misunderstand information and think a situation is much worse than it is or make up their own explanation to fill in what they don’t understand.

5. Kids can cope

Children and young people learn about emotions and how to express them by watching others – especially their parents.

“A key factor in helping kids get through a difficult time is to role model how to recognise, talk about and manage a range of emotions,” says Jenni Bruce.

Jenni explains, “We can’t stop kids from feeling sad, but if we share our feelings and give them information about what’s happening, we can support them in their sadness.”

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