How to Tell Kids About Cancer
The family: Rachel and Justin S. and son Henry, of Chicago, IL
In February 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. Henry was 2 at the time, and my husband had brought him along to pick me up from my colonoscopy. That meant he was in the room when the doctors told me the news. I’d always been healthy and had just a few minor symptoms, so we were completely unprepared for and shocked by the diagnosis. Fortunately, Henry was so young he couldn’t really understand what was happening.
We didn’t use the word cancer at first. We just told him that Mommy was sick and had to visit the doctor and rest a lot. As I was going through treatment, we’d give him general information about things he observed—my portable chemo pack had “important medicine in it that comes out of a balloon!” and he helped draw x’s on my chemo countdown board.
But a year later, the cancer returned. And Henry was then 4 years old, so he was much more aware of everything. After many conversations with doctors, people close to us, and, of course, each other, my husband and I decided we wanted to distinguish having cancer from having other types of illness.
Henry likes to read with us, so we found a picture book called Cancer Hates Kisses, by Jessica Reid Sliwerski, which portrays a mom going through many common cancer experiences. My husband and I sat down with him in our favorite reading spot in the den, during the day so he wouldn’t be going directly to bed afterward, and said that we wanted to tell him more about Mommy’s sickness. In a direct yet optimistic tone, I said, “You know how Mommy has had to go see the doctor so much? I have a sickness that isn’t like a cold, so you don’t have to worry that you or other people we love will catch it. But it is serious—it’s called cancer.”
Henry took it all in for a minute, not getting too upset, and then he gave me lots of hugs and smooches. “Will this make you feel better?” he asked. I replied, “Yes, kisses make me feel stronger, so I can keep fighting.” Even very young kids, I realized, can be so astute and empathetic.
Later, my husband and I talked about how well the conversation had gone, but we also realized that this initial talk was only the beginning of the coping process. Over time, Henry has asked many questions: “What is cancer?” “What is a tumor?” “Why can’t I get it like a cold?” “Does the medicine make it go away?” We always try to give basic facts without getting into the full seriousness of it. At his age, he cannot and should not get the full impact. He doesn’t understand—and we haven’t told him—just how grave the situation is.
A couple of weeks after my most recent surgery, he asked to see my scar. I’d been dreading the question because it’s a foot long and scary-looking. But instead of being repulsed, he simply whispered, “Wow.” And a few minutes later, with a big smile on his face, he asked, “Mommy, are you a cancer warrior?”
Recently, Henry told us that his favorite stuffed animal had cancer. “That sounds scary,” we said. “How does she feel about it? How do you feel?”
His own questions and concerns often come out through play like this, and we try to follow his lead to provide simple responses. As painful as it can be when he brings up Mommy’s cancer out of the blue, we want to reassure him that his emotions about it are normal. This isn’t something we can sweep under the rug.