Talking to your children about cancer

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It’s never easy telling any close friend or family member that you have cancer – but children present some special challenges. In addition to the loving concern they have for you, as immature beings they depend on you to help them deal with life and growing up. As parents we never want to hurt our children but rather to protect them. We ourselves feel pain when we’re not able to shield them from suffering – and this pain can sometimes make it difficult to discern the many ways in which we can ease their burden. Sometimes parents genuinely believe that it’s best not to say anything to the children, especially if there is an expectation of successful treatment with minimal disruption to family life. How much and how widely to share is something each patient and family has to work out, and there’s no “correct” procedure. However, bear in mind that even if there’s every reason to be positive, treatment plans don’t always go smoothly and healing sometimes takes longer than first predicted. In the meantime children of all ages can be acutely sensitive at an emotional level. It is likely that they will realise that something is going on and will feel insecure. Yet children, even the very young, do have the capacity to cope and to play their part in the family’s response if we would give them a chance. Not telling can also represent a burden to parents, who may find themselves having to pretend that everything’s fine, when it’s really not. Although you may have to tell children and other family members if you’re going to have an urgent operation, a detailed conversation about cancer can wait until you feel ready. This will be when you yourself have been able to absorb relevant information about the type of cancer involved, the treatment options, and the likely course of the illness (as far as doctors are able to describe this). Like anyone else, children prefer to have some sense of the whole picture rather than collecting information in scraps and shreds. Being knowledgeable about your cancer and its treatment makes you feel and sound more confident, which is important to your child – your confidence will reassure, helping them to take in what you’re saying. Whenever we have to tell another person something we know they’ll find difficult to hear, we prepare the ground carefully. This means finding the best time and place, choosing our words wisely and allowing the other person time to think, as well as the opportunity to express feelings and to ask questions. Most children will prefer to be alone with the parent as the presence of siblings may distract, especially if there’s a big age...

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How do I get through this?

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Hearing the news Hearing that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, even if you previously suspected it, can come as a tremendous shock. It can’t be absorbed all at once. You go through a process in which, given the right kind of support, you gradually recover your sense of being able to make choices, as opposed to being overwhelmed by a tide of events over which you have no say or control. Even though it may feel as though nothing has changed in your physical body, you are already in mental and emotional pain, needing to find comfort and hope. The first step, however, is to really “hear” what your doctor has told you as you let it sink in. Although you may never have had to cope with this much bad news before, it’s likely that you already have relevant life experience. For example, the dead car battery: You’re rushing to work or an appointment, you get into the car, and turn the key. A muffled grinding sound results…What do you do? It may sound ridiculous, but you actually go through a process: Denial: let’s just turn the key a few more times, maybe it will work. The battery can’t be flat! Anger: Why must this happen now, of all times? This is unfair! Who wasted the battery? Bargaining: Please, car, just start this once and I’ll get you a new battery later. Depression: It’s no use. I’m not going to make it. My day is ruined. I’ll probably get the sack. Acceptance: OK, it’s dead. At least I’m still at home. I’ll call work and make excuses, then I’ll phone for help with this car. So this is a familiar process for people who are faced with life-altering bad news – though the intensity of our reaction will depend on the extent of the loss we are facing. Even in the situation of the dead battery, there is a huge difference between being late for work, and failing to show up for an exam or our child’s special moment. Where real loss and grief are involved, that grief response is personal and individual: no one can tell you how you “should” react. We all have different personalities, life experiences and coping styles, and that’s OK! The process of moving into acceptance of a changed situation has been given the shorthand T.E.A.R. This stands for: To accept the reality of the situation, allowing yourself to believe it Experience the pain, giving expression to your feelings Adjust to the new reality, re-organising your life and commitments to reflect the changes Re-invest in the new reality, identifying opportunities to live more deeply into your values Your coping personality The pattern of adjustment...

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