Hearing that a child has cancer is a devastating experience for a parent. At least these days, the prognosis is much improved on what it was thirty years ago. The majority of children with cancer survive these days.
But how do parents approach this very difficult topic? How does one explain a disease like cancer to a child? Here are some tips that might help you deal with this situation.
The protection racket. By not telling children the truth, you are making things worse, not better. Children very often sense that something is wrong, and if you keep denying their illness or the increasing severity of their symptoms, they cannot communicate with you openly about their feelings. If you are not forthright, you will be damaging your relationships with your child.
The truth must out. Any kind of serious illness is scary to a child. Not being truthful about your child’s disease can make them distrust you. Wait until you feel very calm, before talking to your child. Give the bare facts, but in a sympathetic manner. This will also decrease their anxiety and their sense of guilt – a common phenomenon. Get the person closest to the child to have this talk. Try to choose a quiet time and place where you will not be interrupted. A gentle an honest approach is best.
Are you in the know? Get your facts straight before you have this talk. Your child may have lots of questions and you should be prepared well enough to answer them. You need to be able to discuss the type of cancer your child has, as well as the treatment options.
Toddlers with cancer. Obviously a three-year-old will be treated in a different manner to a thirteen-year-old. Very young children have a limited capacity to understand what is going on. Be there with them and accept the fact that they will find medical procedures frightening and probably will cry. Let them. Your honesty will help them to build trust.
Dealing with older children. Young children ( 3 – 7) often think they did something to cause the illness. Reassure them that this is not the case. Slightly older children (7-12) can understand medical procedures and can understand the importance of sticking to treatment programmes. Adolescents can be difficult to deal with – they understand the connection between cancer and possible death. They need to be reassured that great strides have been made in the field of cancer treatment.
Dealing with difficult questions. Stress that no one knows what causes cancer and that your child did not do anything to cause this. Many children will ask you directly whether they will get well. Tell them that the chances are very high that they will, with the kind of treatment they are receiving. Let them know that everyone is trying their best to help them. Tell your child honestly about side effects of medication, so they can be prepared. The ‘bad’ cells causing the cancer need to be controlled, therefore children need to continue taking their medication, even if they are feeling well.
Sympathy, not overindulgence. Chances are very high that your child will recover. While you should remain sympathetic, don’t let your child use his/her disease to get extra attention and favours on an ongoing basis. You don’t want a child who will use illness in later life as an attention-seeking mechanism. Children might also assume they are a lot sicker than they are if you constantly let them bend the rules. It is nevertheless a good idea to give them some limited sort of control, such as choosing the juice they would like to have with their medication.
Deal with the right doctor. This is very important. Get a doctor with a good bedside manner, with whom your child feels some affinity. If ongoing care comes from a sympathetic source, it reduces the trauma of treatment for the child. Shop around until you find someone both you and your child like and trust.
Cancer and your kids’ classmates. A long absence from school and changed physical appearance could be major hurdles for your child to deal with. It is important that your child keeps contact with friends during treatment. Get the teacher to reassure other kids that cancer is not contagious. Contact the counsellor and class teacher to organise a question-and-answer session in which the other children’s questions can be answered. Good friends will remain good friends. Children often understand a lot more than adults think.
Mood swings. Like adults, children go through good and bad patches when it comes to dealing with something as serious as cancer. Accept these. Children are sometimes afraid for what the future holds, scared of the medication and petrified that they might die. If children show signs of depression, such as becoming withdrawn, changing their eating or sleeping patterns, being overly boisterous, get your child, or the whole family, to a counsellor.
The power of love. Reassure your child of your constant love for him or her. With this in mind, many obstacles, such as pain or separation become a lot less daunting. Children find it easier to be honest or to express their fears to someone they know loves them. Your child is a child first and foremost, with the same emotional needs all other children have. Don’t let the diagnosis of cancer let you lose sight of this. You child is still the same child as before.
Caring for yourself. It is important that you take care of yourself and your relationship with your partner. It is very stressful when your child is diagnosed with cancer – more than people can imagine who have never been through this. Everything else seems to take a back seat. But it is important that you take care of yourself, otherwise your ability to care for your child will become diminished. A support group can be extremely useful, as your child will feel less lonely and vulnerable, especially if confronted with children who have overcome cancer.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24 updated October 2010)