Be prepared for all kinds of inquiries but here’s the main question most children will want to know, “What about ME?”
Then, “How will my schedule change?” “Will you still have time for me?” “Is this my fault?” “Am I going to get it?” “Will I lose my hair, too?”
Even the most compassionate children, who will surely want to know that their parent is going to be OK, will want to know the impact the disease and treatment will have on them, said Marsha T. Oakley, nursing coordinator at The Hoffberger Breast Cancer Center at Mercy Medical Center in Maryland.
“It’s good to be positive and to let them know as much as they want to know,” she said.
Breast cancer survivor and author Her daughter, Zoey, was 4 when Klenoshek was diagnosed three years ago at age 41.
“She knew right away and wanted to know why there were pink ribbons on things and why I was getting gifts when it wasn’t my birthday,” Klenoshek said.
She lives in Cranberry Township, PA.
“I had to think fast! And think like a bright 4-year-old. So, I just told her that I had some bad stuff in my body that the doctors were going to take out,” she said.
Zoey seemed OK with that answer and promptly asked her mom for a Pop Tart. Honesty at an age-appropriate level is important, she said.
Klenoshek wrote a book that touches on some of the words involved with breast cancer – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation—and their effects.
“I hope my book is helping parents talk to young kids about cancer. My story touches on hair loss and fatigue, which are common during treatment.” Among the lessons Klenoshek learned: Kids want to help, too. “Zoey was always bringing me fluffy pillows and giving me extra hugs.”
Survivor Tammy Wacker of Altamonte Springs, FL, told her young children that bodies are like gardens, and sometimes weeds need to be removed. “The weeds in our bodies are bad cells and mommy is having surgery to have the cells removed.” She said the book, The Paper Chain, helped her to explain breast cancer to her children.
It’s important to tell children soon, but not too soon, after diagnosis. Children sense stress and change, but grown-ups should be calm when they tell the kids – so they can be prepared for an emotional or inappropriate response, Oakley said.
Many cancer institutes like the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center offer coloring books, kid-friendly books and brochures. Experts there suggest telling kids under the age of three that mommy has a boo-boo or that mommy needs medicine, while preschool kids tend to focus more on concrete concerns, like the side effects of drugs and making sure cancer is not contagious.
Older children want to know more about the treatment plan and that their lifestyles won’t change much. Teens want to know about survival rates, treatment plans, side effects and genetics.
Darlene Kenny, licensed clinical social worker in the Cancer Center at Stony Brook University Medical Center, said children need reassurance. It's important that they understand that nothing they did caused the cancer.
"Children commonly blame themselves when something goes wrong," she said. "You have to clarify for them...Nothing anybody did caused the cancer. They have to be reassured that they will be cared for. A majority of parents do choose to tell their children because there will be changes. Their routine will be disrupted.
"Children are so smart. Usually they know something is going on in the family."
There are help lines and support groups for children and teens, including Gilda’s Club in various locations, Kids Cope in Atlanta and Kids Konnected in various states, including California, New York and Pennsylvania.