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Q. My husband has stage IV esophageal cancer and his prognosis isn't good. My son is worried that he is going to die, but also wonders why his dad is so "crabby" and keeps yelling at him to clean up his room. How do I help my son understand what his father is going through?

A.

Esophageal cancer presents a person with especially difficult physical challenges – changing the way a person eats, swallows, and even sleeps. This may make him much more sensitive to the disorder or messiness around him, including your son’s room. In addition, physical discomfort or pain can make a person extremely irritable. It may be too difficult for your husband to talk to him right now but you can reassure your son by letting him know that his dad is going to the doctor, taking his medicine, and doing his best to get better. Esophageal cancer almost always causes a great deal of weight loss, which can be scary for children and may also be causing your son’s concerns. You can explain how you and the doctor are helping to keep dad strong. Be specific about what is being done to help dad nutritionally.

Here are other things you can do:

  • Always reassure your son about how much you love him.
  • If you husband is unable to talk with your son about his feelings, help him write a brief note using age-appropriate language.
  • Let your son know that you will tell him what is happening so he can feel included and that he can ask you questions.
  • Let your son know that no matter how messy his room gets, it has no effect on his dad’s cancer, because his behavior has no connection to his father’s illness. You may need to say this often and in different ways.
  • If your son’s room gets so messy that it overwhelms him, offer to help him clean it and find ways to stay organized.

You may also find helpful tips in the book, How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness, by Kathleen McCue (St. Martin’s Press, NY).

You can get more support about communicating with your son by calling us at 1-800-813-HOPE (4673) to speak with an oncology social worker.