Q: [School-Aged] We just learned my wife has been diagnosed with breast cancer. We have kids and when it comes to sharing this, or not, are at a loss how to proceed in the best way for the whole family.
A: A mother’s breast cancer diagnosis can completely change a child’s life, no matter how young or old the child is. How the child reacts to that news is greatly influenced by a variety of factors. Among them: how the parents or other close adults handle the crisis; the amount of support the child has; the severity of the diagnosis; whether the child has known someone with cancer and the outcome of that person’s illness; and the child’s emotional maturity level.
While there is no right way to talk to children and teenagers about cancer, being honest with them is critical. Do not hide the news in a desire to protect the child. Children are very intuitive and they know when something is seriously wrong. Involving children and letting them know what is happening generally helps them cope better with a parent’s illness.
It’s equally as important for parents to express their feelings and encourage their children to express their feelings too. Make sure your child knows that it’s okay to talk and ask questions, even if you both feel sad and upset. Ask your child if they’re worried about anything and pay special attention to their answers. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
Instinctively, you may want to protect your child from feeling grief. But know that you just can’t take their pain away. Rather, focus on being honest and supportive and let them know they are loved and cared for. Unfortunately, pain is sometimes part of life and learning to overcome situations like this can help your child build their inner strength and courage.
Understand that with good support, kids can cope. In fact, they’re much more resilient than we think. That support can come from you, another parent, grandparents, an aunt or uncle, or even a close family friend. Whatever the connection, having an adult who is a source of support and good communication can help a child withstand the toughest of times.
Luis Sandoval, MD, is a board certified psychiatrist and family medicine specialist at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Ana. Sandoval focuses on an individual’s total health – mind, body and spirit tp determine the best treatment plan to restore emotional and mental well-being. www.kp.org/OrangeCounty