One of the most common questions parents and family members ask after a cancer diagnosis is “how do we explain this to our child?” Around 22.4% of all cancer diagnoses occur between the ages of 21 to 55, the age range that represents common childbearing years. This may indicate that many people living with cancer are parents with minor children. Approximately 2.8 million children under the age of 18 live with a parent who has cancer.
Even though hiding your cancer diagnosis from your child may seem like an easier option, children can be very perceptive and may interpret this as something scary that you are too afraid to talk about. Here are some tips from the Cancer Support Community on how to have a conversation with your child about your diagnosis:
● Make Sure the Conversation is Age Appropriate — How you explain cancer to your child will depend on his/her age. For example, preschool age children usually have a basic understanding of simple illnesses but may not understand cancer; whereas middle school aged children will often have a more mature understanding about cancer.
● Don’t Fit it All in One Conversation — You don’t have to discuss everything in the first conversation. Watch your child’s body language and facial expressions to gauge when he/she is closing down. Don’t talk beyond their attention span and instead, save something for the next conversation. Give your child space in between and realize that many shorter conversations can be more effective than one longer one.
● Focus on Building a Trusting Relationship with Your Child — Be truthful and answer every question. When you are unsure of the answer, don’t be afraid to say” I don’t know” and that you will find out the answer.
● Provide Support for Your Child: Once your child is aware of your diagnosis, seek local professional support. Gilda’s Club Westchester offers the area’s only ongoing support for children and teens who are living a life affected by cancer. The Children, Teens and Families Program (CTF) at Gilda’s Club Westchester is designed to be a place for children and teens “to learn, have fun, care and share, while being supported by professional staff and trained volunteers.” In addition, Gilda’s Club Westchester hosts a monthly virtual workshop (the second Wednesday of every month) featuring ways to navigate conversations about cancer with children. This workshop is open to the public, specially designed for r parents, caregivers, educators, and healthcare professionals. Attendees learn about children’s general understanding of cancer, ways to talk with them about cancer, common behaviors in children, and strategies to support families.
The following are some of the programs available at Gilda’s Club Westchester to support you and your child:
Children (Ages 5-7)
• Group Support: Kids Cancer Connection (ages 5-12) open to children who have a loved one living with cancer. Kids Living with Loss (ages 5-12) open to children who have had a loved one die from cancer. Kids Living with Cancer (ages 7-12) for children who are living with cancer, undergoing treatment, and are post-treatment.
● Healthy Lifestyle and Social Activities including Building Blocks Yoga with Kim (beginner kid’s yoga), Woofs & Wags (pet therapy), and Camp Maple (summer day camp).
Teens (Ages 13-17)
• Group Support: Teens Connect (ages 13-17) open to teens who have a loved one with cancer or have had someone die from cancer. Teens Living with Cancer (ages 13-17) for teens who are living with cancer, undergoing treatment, and are post-treatment.
● Healthy Lifestyle and Social Activities: Fun, age-appropriate classes and workshops are offered throughout the year to provide teens with an opportunity to learn new skills and make meaningful connections with others.
● Teen Cancer Story Contest: This annual multimedia contest is open to teens in the Westchester, Rockland, and Fairfield County areas who are impacted by cancer and want to share their story. Submissions for this contest are now open.
● Youth Committee: For volunteer high school students, Youth Committee is an opportunity for teens to raise awareness about Gilda’s Club Westchester and the importance of psychosocial support.
• Short Term Counseling: Family Counseling is structured to support the whole family, including family meetings, sessions with siblings, addressing communication within the family, and consulting with parents/guardians to discuss the best ways to engage in age-appropriate conversations about cancer.
• Educational Workshops: Educational workshops on topics related to cancer and loss in the family offer parents/guardians a chance to acquire skills, tools, information, and techniques.
• Family Events: Opportunities for children, teens, and parents to come together to connect, socialize and have fun are offered throughout the year. These events are open to any child in the Children, Teens and Families program, along with their family members. Themes for the events vary including dinners, baking, cooking, flower planting, Pizza in the Park, and Noogiefest, our annual Halloween event.
Gilda’s Club Westchester provides free programs that serve as a compliment to medical care for anyone living with cancer, or have experienced a cancer-related loss, as well as their family and friends. For more information, contact (914) 644-8844; email@example.com or visit https://gildasclubwestchester.org/children-teens-and-families/.