Of all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that run through a parent’s head once they hear the diagnosis that their child has cancer – this one always plagues us— “What do I tell my child(ren)?” Fearful that telling our children might upset them more or make it worse for our kids, we withhold telling them. Truth be told, that even at a small age, children can pick up on emotions and the feeling that something is wrong. If not told the truth, they might think things are much worse than they really are and not know how to express their own emotions causing fear, worry, and anxiety in the child.
My husband and I believe that it is very important to nurture the mental, emotional, and physically well-being of our children. We talk to them about “hard” topics, encourage them to ask us questions, provide age-appropriate honest answers related to the topic at bay. By talking with your children honestly and helping them express their emotions, you make it easier for them to feel safe and secure. As their parent, you are the best judge of how to talk to your children.
Leading up to the day our son was diagnosed with cancer, my older son (4.5 years old) came with us to get his blood drawn for labs. We explained to him that Lukas was not feeling very well, and we needed to find out some answers. He asked me if Lukas was sick. I told him that he might be sick, but that is why we have doctors and hospitals; to help sick kids get better to live a healthy life.
The First Conversation
The day Lukas was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), my husband and I looked at each other knowing we needed to tell Jakob immediately. Jakob is an emotional little man; he loves hard, worries deeply, and gives his everything. Sitting him down to have this conversation with him was excruciatingly painful. Telling him that his best friend, his brother, has cancer and was a like a gut punch to the stomach. With a little bit of advice from our social worker, child life specialist, and the internet, we were ready to explain to Jakob what was wrong with his brother.
With Jakob being only 4 years old, we made sure to describe leukemia in a way that would make sense to him. We were intentional about using words he knew, and taking time to explain words he didn’t fully understand. We described to Jakob that Lukas had cancer and there were many different types. Also, we made it clear to him that you cannot “catch” cancer from him as his type of cancer was leukemia, which is a sickness in your blood. We told him that he has some bad blood in his body that has been making him sick. He was going to have to stay at the hospital for a bit. We explained how the doctors are going to do tests and give him lots of medicine called chemotherapy to make all the bad blood go away so his body can make the good blood again to get him healthy. We explained how we were going to have to go to the hospital a lot so Lukas could have treatments at the clinic and that Lukas needed him there as his older brother for support and love. Jakob listened… he asked if all the bad blood will go away, if Lukas was going to die, if the doctors will be able to fix him, and if we can pray to God for him at night. We answered all his questions, and his fears seemed to fade away as he ran away to play trains. Since that first time we spoke to him about cancer and Lukas, there have been many nights where he cries in bed worried about Lukas and asks many questions about heaven and healing or if he will have cancer, too. I do my best to reassure him, but these are the fears that concern Jakob. By being open and honest with Jakob, along with allowing him to join Lukas at clinic, teaches Jakob that we can talk about cancer openly, be empathetic, and helps him cope with his brother’s illness.
Helpful Tips to Foster a Healthy, Open Environment
Pediatric cancer affects the whole family. The new diagnosis of cancer may cause parents to focus only on their ill child, forgetting that their other children need help coping with the new family “normal” brought on by cancer. These changes can be extra painful on siblings. Noticing their changes is critical in helping them cope with the change in the family and with their sibling. Recognizing the emotions and behaviors that are associated with the change will better help you meet the needs of your other children and help them manage their own stress with the cancer diagnoses in a positive and healthy manner.
These 3 tips can help you and your family navigate the unknown difficulties that a cancer diagnoses, treatment and recovery will throw at you.
1) Notice the different types of emotions of your healthy children are portraying.
Siblings of a child with cancer will have a lot of emotions, it’s only natural. Here are a few emotions I have witnessed from my son:
2) Recognizing changes in behaviors from healthy siblings.
Children are still learning and working on how to express their feelings and emotions in a positive or healthy way. They might not know how to express or have the words to describe the feelings above to an adult to make them feel better. The way children know how to express their feelings is through different actions they may exhibit. All children are different, but these can be some changed behavior you might notice from your healthy children:
3) Ways to help the healthy siblings cope with their feelings and emotions.
There’s no way to rectify every fear or emotion your healthy children are feeling, but you can help alleviate the intensity of emotions and feelings they might have about their sibling. Hopefully now you might be able to recognize some of the emotions and behaviors of your healthy children and you can get them the resources or use these strategies to better help them cope with the stress and emotions that a cancer diagnosis brings. Here’s how: