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When Dominic’s wife Louise was diagnosed with cancer in June 2017, their children were aged just four and five. Dominic explains why it is so important to talk to kids about cancer based on his own experience.

Mother’s Day can be an especially tough time of year for children and families that have been impacted by cancer. As a father of two, Dominic knows first-hand how hard it was to tell his children that their mother was unwell.

“When Lou’s cancer spread from her breast, we were talking about how we approach the news with the kids – and the situation we were in was now very serious. They knew Mummy was sick, but we hadn’t informed them how serious it was.” Louise had terminal cancer.

Dominic shares important takeaways from his own experience trying to find the best way to talk to his children about cancer:

  • Start with questions to see what they already know
  • Don’t overload the detail
  • Make sure they understand it’s nobody’s fault
  • Assure them they will be looked after no matter what
  • Talk to them at their comprehension/age level but don’t sugar coat it
  • Love the hell out of your little stinky monkeys

Amanda Robertson, Cancer Council SA Information and Support Manager explains that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is not uncommon for parents and adults to be hesitant to discuss the situation with children.

“It may feel like there is no right time to tell children about a cancer diagnosis. As a parent, you instinctively want to shield your children from any fear or sadness.”

“Being honest with each other about fears and feelings can positively impact your relationship with your child and help your child’s wellbeing and ability to cope.”

Amanda explains five reasons why a straightforward and honest discussion can help children:

  1. Secrecy can make things worse
    “If they feel like you’re hiding something from them, it might bite you in the back,” says Dominic. Children who are told about the illness of someone important to them tend to cope better than children who are kept in the dark. Trying to keep a diagnosis secret can be difficult and add to your own stress.
  2. You can’t fool kids
    Children are observant. No matter how hard you try to hide a cancer diagnosis, most children will suspect something is wrong. They will work out that a secret exists, but that it should not be discussed. Not knowing the reason for the secret may leave them feeling powerless or disconnected from everyone else, without knowing why.

    “Before we scheduled the chat with Noah, his teacher told us that during prayer time he had asked to pray for Mummy, because her cancer was back, and it was bad. We hadn’t told him this, but he knew. He had seen people at the house crying, flowers turning up, people whispering on the phone. It proved to us that we needed to explain to the kids every step of the way, to tell them that Mummy might die, that we were doing everything to keep her alive, we might succeed but we might not either,” Dominic explains.

  3. Honesty can build trust with your child
    Children can feel hurt if they suspect or discover they have not been told something important that affects their family. Hearing bad news is better than the worry they feel when they don’t know what is happening.
  4. They might find out from someone else
    Children often listen to adult conversations even when it seems like they are busy with their own activity and not paying attention. Overhearing news can make children feel upset and confused. Children may also misunderstand information and think a situation is much worse than it is or make up their own explanation to fill in what they don’t understand.
  5. Kids can cope
    A key factor in helping kids get through difficult times is a close relationship with an adult who values and supports them and accepts them for who they are. Children and young people learn about emotions and how to express them by watching others – especially their parents.

Cancer Council SA offers free face-to-face, online, or over the phone counselling sessions to South Australians and their loved ones impacted by cancer. For more information or to organise an appointment contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Read more about talking to kids about cancer.