Thursday 27 October 2016

Parent Zone: What's the best way to tell my eight-year-old son I have cancer?

Telling a child about cancer can be very difficult. Picture posed.
Telling a child about cancer can be very difficult. Picture posed.
Hair loss in patients can bring a lot of stress. Picture posed

Telling a child about cancer and dealing with a child's sickness

Q: I HAVE recently been diagnosed with cancer and I am terrified. Most of all I am worried for my eight-year-old son.

I don't know how to tell him or what to tell him. At present, I am looking well but I know that will change once chemo begins. Any advice you can give will be helpful.

There is probably nothing more dreaded or feared than cancer. Once a person gets that diagnosis, it can seem as if life has stood still.

When a parent has cancer they worry for themselves and for their children. It is only natural to feel overwhelmed and be in a state of shock. I hope that your recovery is a full one and that you proceed well through your treatment.

It is usually best to tell the truth, but to simplify it, to your child. You don't have to go into a lot of detail. It will be best to say something like, "Mommy isn't well right now and will be getting help from doctors and nurses."

Even such a simple statement as this may be enough at the present time, especially since you have just received your diagnosis.

Trying to explain too much will only cause unnecessary anxiety in your son. After all, you yourself can hardly predict the future and are not yet aware of all the treatment options you will soon learn about.

It will be important for you to listen to your son and be aware of his emotions. You will be, I'm sure, tuned into him and notice if he is fearful, anxious, confused or upset. It will be important to notice if there are any significant changes in his behaviour at home, school or in the community.

Children often display their upset by behaviour instead of words. The more attentive you are to his emotional state the better you will be able to comfort him.

It is also important to rely on family to help support you and your son. If you have a partner then he or she can be helpful in comforting your son. There is nothing to be gained by taking all the responsibility onto your own shoulders.

Family is a significant source of comfort. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, although they will all be dealing with their own feelings, can be a positive support for your son.

Involving a nurse or a doctor in dealing with your son may be useful as well. Having someone in a position of responsibility for your care talk to your child may be a great relief to him. Remember not to project too far into the future.

Take things as they come to you and deal with them as best you can. Look after yourself also: rest, eat properly, get proper exercise and remember to bring laughter and love into your daily routine.

The most important thing for your son is that regular routine is maintained as much as possible, and when it can't be maintained, that he be prepared for the changes.

Q: MY 13-year-old daughter is in treatment for cancer. She has to spend a lot of time in the hospital and this has disrupted her education. Her spirits are usually high but she worries what her friends will think when she is not looking well.

She will soon lose her hair because of chemotherapy and she is worried that she will be laughed at and bullied in school. Help


I am sorry to hear your daughter is ill and I hope she makes a full and speedy recovery. It will be important for you to be strong for her and also for you to be sure you have a secure family to provide her with support. At age 13, one's physical appearance is so important that anything which might disturb it may be horribly stressful. Her feelings and worries are normal and you should not be concerned about her mental health.

It will be helpful for your daughter to have someone her own age to talk to, if possible. I am sure there are other children in hospital with her and that some of them have gone through the same worries she is expressing. If possible, see if a nurse can identify a child who might be willing to meet and talk with your daughter. She needs to know she is not alone with her struggle and that things do get better.

When it is time for her to return to school, you might consider ringing up the principal, year head or counsellor to alert them of her return.

They can be particular helpful in assuring that she is warmly greeted (but not with undue fanfare) and supported through her re-entry.

Teachers will be understanding and will not put unnecessary pressure on her, I hope. Being absent on and off frequently will make it challenging for her to keep up at times. An understanding educational environment will assure she adjusts well.

Although she is concerned that she may be bullied, this is unlikely to happen and she will, no doubt, discover that quickly enough. If there are any signs of unkind comments being made, you must act immediately and firmly to see that the school addresses it immediately.

Your daughter needs a safe and harmonious environment in school just as much as she needs it at home. I really don't think there will be any untoward events happening, so she should make a smooth return.

She will, of course, have her ups and downs and her energy levels may fluctuate at times. Making sure her homework is adjusted accordingly by talking to teachers will be helpful.

I am sure she has received excellent care throughout her illness. I do hope her doctors and nurses have been attentive to the normal developmental stages of young adolescence and that they have listened to her worries.

Most children cope well with serious illness once their emotional issues are looked after along with their physical issues. Stay on top of things, be sure to be emotionally present to her when she needs you. I wish her well.


David is a psychologist; send your questions to davidcarey@herald.ie

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