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?

A.

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.

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? 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 think it is “babyish” to be worried about you. 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.” Keep in mind that just because you have cancer, does not change the fact that your son is still a teenager.

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.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Let your child know that you are always available to answer their questions
  • Try to keep family time consistent
  • 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
  • Find age-appropriate support groups for your children that will help them feel connected to other children who have a similar experience

Helping your Children Cope with your Cancer, by Peter Vandernoot (Hatherleigh Press, New York), is an excellent resource.