Q. Last week I told my son that I had cancer and we have barely spoken about it since. What can I do to help support my son?


As a caring parent you want to help your son understand what you are going through. Children want to know the facts and how they will be affected.

Children, and especially teens, are mostly focused on themselves and their own day-to-day life. You may notice your child is still focused on school, friends, and other activities. That doesn’t mean your child is ignoring your diagnosis. It takes time for a child to mentally process this kind of information and he may not completely understand the implications of your diagnosis until he notices physical changes or if there are disruptions in day-to-day life. Here are some age-specific strategies for communicating with children about cancer:

If your son is under 5, he is likely to ask you a question or bring up your cancer when he is most closely engaged with you one on one. His questions will most likely be brief and concrete, such as: What does your cancer look like? Does the medicine taste bad? He may be scared that cancer is contagious or that he might get cancer too. Your answers should be brief, factual and in words he understands.

Children ages 6-11 typically are more interested in the mechanics of treatment. The “killing” of cancer cells and seeing your treatment as a “battle” or “fight” — whether or not you yourself use these images — is very likely how your son will think of your experience. Some parents are comfortable using this language; others may choose to describe their experience using non-violent imagery. Either way is okay.

If your son is a teenager, he will be wrestling with a variety of conflicting thoughts and feelings. He will want to ask questions but may not want to add to your stress by asking questions or showing concern. He may feel sad about the situation but think it is “unmanly” to have that feeling. He will be certain that none of this “shows” at all but you will see it clearly in his face and demeanor. If you ask him questions he will most likely tell you that he is “fine.” Try not to force the conversation and give him space to process his emotions on his own.

No matter what age your son is, he will let you know when he is ready to talk. There may be times when you need to start the conversation because you are going to lose your hair, or need to rest more, or will be hospitalized. In these cases, be factual, brief, and use words you know your son will understand. Children and teens like to be kept in the loop and the more they are informed, the less anxious they will be when these changes happen. Also, periodically check in with your son, ask if he has questions or wants to talk in order to show him that you are comfortable talking about it and that you are available to talk whenever he is ready.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Let your child know that you are always available to answer their questions
  • Try to keep family time consistent. When possible, eat meals together, have a movie night, etc.
  • Ask your child if there are aunts, uncles, school counselors or other professionals (social workers, psychologists) that they would like to talk to about how they are coping. Sometimes children are more comfortable talking to someone other than the person who is diagnosed
  • Find age-appropriate support groups for your children that will help them feel connected to other children who have a similar experience

Here are some publication and book recommendations for further information:

  • Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer by Peter Vandernoot (Hatherleigh Press, New York)
  • Kemo Shark by Kidscope, Inc. (www.kidscope.org). A cartoon illustrated book featuring “Kemo” the shark who explains how chemotherapy works to fight cancer. Also available in Spanish. Ages 3-12.
  • What About Me? A Booklet for Teenage Children of Cancer Patients by Linda Leopid Strauss. A book addressing the specific needs of teens when their parent has cancer.