Telling your kids about cancer


Hollye Harrington Jacobs writes about her breast cancer experience (or, FBC, as she calls it) for the Huffington Post. She is a medical professional herself with a background in hospice and palliative care and was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer when she was 39-years old.

She and her husband also blog about her journey at the Brookside Buzz. They talk about their feelings, asking for help, Silver Linings (moments and things that help her feel better, like fashion and when doctors are on time), and their five-year old daughter.

I came across her story when the Huffington Post posted her entry on deciding to tell her then 4-year old about cancer. While she would prefer to shield the whole experience from her family, she knows it affects everyone in her community and children are intuitive when something is going on around them.

When you keep children out of the conversation, they may feel you’re lying to them, that you don’t think they’re important enough to know and help, and wind up confused when you’re home more often and unable to play with them.

The truth is, children are pretty good with this stuff. Cancer diagnosis, recovery, and death are scary for adults because we have been through it with other people and we have our own memories.

When Hollye told her daughter about her cancer, the little girl already knew there was something wrong and asked appropriate questions like if it was contagious, how long would it take for her to feel better, if she would be in a deep enough sleep to not feel the surgery, and if she would get to wear a princess dress and get awoken by a kiss like Sleeping Beauty.

It’s ok to let your kids know you’re scared sometimes and it’s ok for them to feel scared too. Tell them if you believe you will get better and that you might not be able to do the same things you do now while you go through treatment and recovery.

Find new activities you can do together while you get better while maintaining as much routine as possible. Hollye and her daughter compiled a list of Disney movies and favourite books to keep them occupied during her rest period. Try out some art therapy or involve your kids in the kitchen while you make healthy meals together. Don’t let them get away with forgetting manners or ignoring the rules, no matter how it makes things “easier” right now. We have rules for our children to help them be responsible, healthy, successful adults and frequently bending them sends the message that it’s ok to slack off or be rude when things are tough.

Children are resilient problem solvers and it will no doubt make you feel better to have them in your corner when you’re blue rather than exerting energy trying to keep them ambivalent. It will help prepare them for when they meet a similar situation in the future, and that’s an important parental responsibility.