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How Much Should You Tell Your Kids About Your Cancer?

In most areas of my life, I err on the side of being too open.

When I look back on how I told my daughter I’d been diagnosed with cancer, I wonder if perhaps I told her too much? Should I have let a then-9-year-old see me weeping, while hunched over on a closed toilet seat? Should I—in the name of openness—have dragged her along with me and my husband to that first oncology consult? During treatment, was it okay that I joked around about my cancer status? Did I talk too much about cancer? Too little?

I don’t know. We’re all human, and we never get these things completely correct.

But I do know this much: You’re not the only one who has cancer. Your family has cancer with you, and so do your closest friends and associates. And while you don’t have to be as open about it as I was—starting a blog, telling people on the bus—it’s probably better to say at least something about the health challenge you’re facing. If you don’t say anything, then kids may imagine things that are far worse than chemo. Experts here, here and here agree.

Remember that it’s common to want to protect our kids from an anxiety and uncertainty. But actually, honesty will make children feel more secure than not, experts say.

Obviously, what you say will be greatly influenced by how old the kids in question are. Think about the cancer talk the way you might think about the “sex talk.” Little kids may want a one sentence explanation, i.e. “Daddy is sick, but he has good doctors who are doing everything they can to make him better.” Kids in elementary school may want a few more details. Those in high school may want to talk about percentages, stages, and the prognosis and so on. Teens may even want a role in discussing treatment decisions. Follow their lead.

The key is to prepare to talk to the kids in your life, and when you talk to them, give them space to absorb what they’ve heard. Ask if they have any questions. If they don’t, they may just need more time to process the news. Follow up with them in a couple hours, or a couple days. Find out what they know and correct any misconceptions.

Kids are naturally self-centered; that’s normal. Make sure to let them know how your diagnosis and treatment might affect their routine. Keep the lines of communication open. You won’t be sorry.

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