Talking to Kids About Cancer

Discussing cancer with your kids can feel as intimidating as talking about sex and drugs. Parents don’t want to alarm their children by having these highly emotional conversations.

Yet, crying in front of your children shows them that it is totally fine to experience sadness and fear among those who love and support you. And when it becomes part of your family, it can’t be ignored. Within a family, regardless if the patient is parent or child, the main tone of the conversation should be honest and hopeful.

“Parents try to protect their kids by not talking about it, but that is a disservice,” says Dr. Jessica Pollard, attending pediatric oncologist at the Maine Children’s Cancer Program.

“Their job is to maintain an ongoing context of hope and honesty. Tell a child that there was nothing anybody did wrong, but the body has stopped making healthy cells and there are medicines doctors use to get those cells healthy again. If a child is sick, tell them over 80 percent of children survive.”

She notes that children will usually ask about death. When they do:

“The honest truth is that no one knows when they are going to die. Just because a grandparent passed away from cancer doesn’t mean that is happening in this case. The goal is to get better and if the doctors are having time with that, we will be honest with you,” she says. “Kids want to feel supported and loved, and in that, a parent has to be honest with what is happening on the journey.”

The Madsen family of Raymond has dealt with these issues constructively. Last year, their lives turned upside down when 3-year-old Addy was diagnosed with pediatric myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare form of cancer occurring in 4 out of every 1 million children.

Mom Jessica Madsen says, “Addy would often be confused by the ideas of ‘cells,’ so we described it as good guys and bad guys in her blood. We told her the good guys made her feel better, and the bad guys made her feel sick. We always tried to focus on the fact that the chemotherapy was focused on giving the good guys extra super powers to destroy the bad guys.”

When the family relocated for several months for treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital, the “Superhero Addy” theme grew into a movement, where her many supporters could watch her progress through social media. She’d often pose for pictures in a cape, a huge smile on her sweet face. This interactive community was a powerful tool of hope and support.

Happily, Addy’s good guys are winning the battle and she is back home in Raymond, excited for the summer with her family and friends.

 This piece originally ran in the July 2016 issue of Maine Women magazine. 

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