Talking about cancer does not have to be traumatic. If anything, NOT talking about it is ultimately more traumatic for a child. Not communicating about cancer allows misunderstandings and fears about the illness to grow.
What is cancer?
- The body is made up of cells. Cells make our bodies work. They are so tiny that you need a microscope to see them.
- Cancer cells don't look or act like normal cells. They don't allow our normal, healthy cells to work properly. They can grow very fast and spread. Cancer cells may group together to form a tumor.
- There are many different types of cancer. Cancer can grow anywhere in the body.
Is cancer contagious?
- Cancer is not something that you can catch from someone else like you can a cold or the flu. You can be close to the person who has cancer and not worry about catching it.
Did I cause cancer?
- No. Nothing that anyone does, says or thinks can cause cancer in someone else. Ever.
Why do people get cancer?
- Most of the time, no one knows why someone gets cancer. It's hard to not have all of the answers, but the truth is we don't.
What causes cancer?
- There is still a lot we don't know about how cancer begins and what causes it.
- Sometimes cancer can be caused by some chemicals, pollution, smoking, alcohol, and other things inside and outside the body.
Do children get cancer?
- Yes, unfortunately children do get cancer but it is rare for children to get cancer. More adults get cancer than children.
Who will take care of me?
- There are lots of people who will help me take care of you when I'm feeling sick. When I'M FINISHED WITH MY CANCER TREATMENT, I WILL BE STRONG AGAIN. When I'm getting my treatment, I'll be around as much as I possibly can, and we will do different things when I'm sick, like watch movies, read books and cuddle in bed.
How is cancer treated?
- Different people have different treatments for different types of cancer.
- Sometimes people have an operation to take the cancer out of the body.
- Sometimes people take medicine called chemotherapy. It uses special kinds of chemicals to destroy cancer cells.
- Sometimes people have radiation therapy to help get rid of cancer cells. It is done with a special machine that is made just for cancer treatment.
- Some people need two or three of these treatments.
Will the treatments hurt?
- The treatments will not hurt because there is medicine that I will take to take away the pain. If I need surgery, I might be sore from the surgery and it will take some time to heal and get better.
What are "side effects"?
- Side effects of cancer treatment happen because the chemotherapy damages healthy cells as well as killing the cancer cells.
- You will be able to see some of the side effects such as: my hair falling out, scars from surgery, mouth sores and weight loss.
- Other side effects can't be seen such as: feeling tired, feeling sick to my stomach, wanting to rest more, not being able to play.
- After I'm done with all of my treatments, these things will go away.
Are you going to die?
- We are all going to die sometime. I am working very hard with my doctors to make sure that I don't die from cancer.
- Children's questions and concerns about dying may come up any time after they hear the news about their parent's cancer diagnosis.
- All children, except very young ones, wonder if cancer means you are going to die, even if they don't ask the question out loud. They may be afraid to ask you about death and dying if you haven't been able to talk about it.
- If adults change the subject, or answer them with silence, they will sense that it is not acceptable to talk with you about death and therefor internalize the issue and come up with inaccurate answers on their own. Remember: (as hard as this may be to believe) a child's imagination about cancer (and its treatment) is worse than the reality.
When will you feel better?
- Feeling better will take a long time because I have been very sick. I'll still be tired, but little by little I'll be able to do more and more. In fact, every day I will feel a little better.
Will the cancer come back?
- I hope that it won't. I am working very hard with my doctors to make sure that the cancer does not come back.
It is important it is to be honest with children. Having difficult discussions with them builds a sense of trust and inclusions that children so desperately need when someone in the family is diagnosed with and treated for cancer.
Also, children are likely to find out anyway. They often learn about cancer from other sources, e.g., school, television, the Internet, their classmates, and listening to other people talk. Some of this information is correct but a lot of it is not.
Additionally, even when children are busy and don't seem to be listening, they often overhear adults talking about subjects not meant for them to hear. When children overhear these conversations, it confirms that adults are keeping things from them. This can fuel the potential for thinking that they've done or not done something to cause the cancer.
Not knowing what is really going on or how to cope with information about cancer can be terrifying to a child.
Remember: there are always professionals who are willing and able to help when parents feel overwhelmed by talking with children. Engaging professional help when coping with cancer is a sign of strength and resourcefulness.