How Do I Tell My Children and Family I Have Cancer?

A cancer survivor hugs her grandchild.
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The old saying goes, there's no good time for bad news. There are few instances that fit more appropriately than a cancer diagnosis. You're running the gamut of emotions fear, worry, uncertainty, confusion, possibly even denial or anger. While you're trying to process your own feelings and answer the dozens of questions circling your mind, you stop on one. How am I going to tell my kids?

Luckily, you don't have to make the decision alone. When it comes to preparing yourself and your children with the reality of your diagnosis, there are very few right and wrong answers, only personal choices you can make to try and strike a balance of comfort for you and your family, even when comfort seems impossible. We spoke with Maria Nemec-Black, oncology social worker, and Nanette Whitehead, child life specialist, both at AdventHealth, to talk about things you should consider when breaking the news.

Honesty is the best policy
"Children can sense even from an early age when no one has given them information, and this can be extremely difficult for them. Rather than letting the child sort out their feelings on their own we need to make them feel included and connected, especially in the process of a new diagnosis, Whitehead said. Sometimes, their imaginations can be worse than reality, so use simple, concrete words when explaining any diagnosis to your child.

Consider age and development
The biggest factor is the age of the child. A 5-year-old wouldn't understand a grim diagnosis the way a teenager might. Most of the time, especially at young ages, the child is going to follow the parents' reaction. The child thinks, If my parents aren't alarmed, I don't have to be alarmed, says Nemec-Black. Parents know their children best, so we encourage them to decide the best course for explanation based on the individual.

Consider your treatment
Your treatment can impact your children too, not just the diagnosis. Someone who is going to receive chemotherapy and lose their hair, for instance, might want to prepare their child for what's going to happen, explains Nemec-Black. But if its a situation where the parent is coming for radiation or outpatient surgery treatment with fewer noticeable repercussions that depends on the child's comfort level.

Consider normalizing the environment
Some of the first steps I take with children is to normalize the environment with developmental appropriate play. Yes, we play! says Whitehead. This allows me to assess the child's readiness to hear information, and depending on that readiness we can determine the actions of the next interventions.

Some types of interventions can be:
Providing the child with a stuffed animal
Decorating the patient's room
Making videos
Jewelry making
Outside play (hide and seek and other games)

Consider your outreach options
We have social workers in all of our campuses as part of the cancer center we call it illness adjustment counseling for both parents and family members. Generally speaking, it helps to alleviate anxiety especially with the anxiety and emotional part of diagnosis and treatment, Nemec-Black says.

Also, additional Child Life Specialists will be added in 2017. From Whitehead's experience, specialists can have a big impact in helping not just kids, but the entire family copes with cancer.

I worked with a family for over 2 years. Their mom battled breast cancer that was treatable, it went into remission, and then relapsed with no possible cure. Our times together were filled with fun, great memories, heartache and healing, she said.

These children were allowed to grieve through the entire process because this mom was leaving her legacy of resilience within them. She asked me to provide information when she emotionally couldn't. She always wanted them to know the truth no matter how hard it was for them to hear.

Through the process, the oldest son took head of the household watching after his sisters who were in middle and high school. The middle daughter spent many days doing her mother's hair and make-up, and reading to her. The youngest daughter was allowed to be the baby sister. They learned to grow stronger in the face of their mother's death, and according to Whitehead, have gracefully grown since. I have never seen such a strong, loving family and I think I might never again. God has a great purpose for them and I can't wait to see it grow into full bloom.

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