On the day Maureen Hovey had her first breast biopsy, her daughter, Amelia, was going to kindergarten for the first time. “The timing was not great,” says Hovey, now 49, a nurse in Orlando, Florida. But breast cancer doesn’t show up when the time is right or the kids are grown.
Like most parents, Hovey would have done anything to protect her children (her son was 9 when she was diagnosed), but she didn’t think it was right to hide her illness from them.
“I knew I had to tell them,” Hovey says. “I didn’t portray it as a doomsday scenario, but just said I have cancer and we’re going to treat it,” she says. Soon the whole family was joking about her wig (“They called it ‘the ferret,’” Hovey says) and helping her pick out seasonal bandanas (she wore ghosts on Halloween).
Hovey’s matter-of-fact approach was just right, says Sue P. Heiney, Ph.D., RN, the director of the Cancer Survivorship Center at the College of Nursing in Columbia, South Carolina and the co-author of Cancer in Our Family: Helping Children Cope With a Parent’s Illness.
Like the wizards In Harry Potter who were afraid to say “Voldemort” out loud, turning cancer into the-disease-that-can’t-be-named gives it more power, not less, she says. “When we name things and explain them—like saying, ‘I have cancer and it’s here,’ (pointing to chest)—we remove the mystery and give the child a greater sense of control,” she says.
Here’s more of Hovey’s smart advice:
Think ages and stages
“Sometimes parents make the mistake of thinking their child is too young to talk to about cancer,” says Hovey. “It is important to be age-appropriate with your language, but even children as young as age 2 can understand simple words explaining cancer,” she says. Picture books about cancer or Mom losing her hair can be read along with your talks.
“If you don’t tell the child, they’re still going to know something is going on—they’re sensitive that way, and they may internalize what they’re feeling,” she says. Kids can make up reasons for what they don’t understand, and they can become angry or distrustful.
Explain the 3 Cs
- “Cancer is not catching. It’s not contagious like a cold or the flu. You can’t get it from me.’”
- “You didn’t cause this. This cancer is not your fault.”
- Make sure they know they can do something to help—they can help mom by sitting with her or drawing her pictures.
Create a comfortable “telling” environment
“I encourage conversations around the dinner table or in casual settings; not a formal family meeting, Hovey says. “You might say, ‘By the way, I haven’t been feeling well and the doctor has said I have cancer. This means…’”
How much more you explain depends upon the child’s age and how much he or she asks.
For more information on how to talk to kids about cancer, visit The American Cancer Society.