Alberta Cancer Foundation

Finding the Right Words

photo by Alex Campbell

FAMILY TIES: Linda and Bernie Weidmann’s honesty allowed Eric, 8, and Sara, 7, to help their mother through stage 3A breast cancer treatment.

It’s one thing to hear the words “You have cancer.”

It’s quite another to say, “I have cancer,” especially to your children. For many parents, delivering the news is harder than receiving it.

“They want to be able to say the right words,” says Dr. Shawn Steggles, director of Psychosocial and Spiritual Resources at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. “They don’t want to hurt their children. It is all done out of compassion and caring. It gets more difficult if the prognosis is poor, but [either way] it’s a painful process.”

There is no right or wrong way to talk to children about cancer, but experts agree there is one ironclad rule: honesty is the best policy, no matter how ugly the truth may be.

Steggles recommends choosing a time when you’re not going to be rushed or interrupted – preferably not before bedtime, as the news may make it difficult for a child to fall asleep. He also recommends choosing a quiet place where you and your child will feel comfortable. If the parent who has cancer doesn’t feel comfortable giving the news, then the other parent or another caregiver should do so. But the worst thing anyone can do is to keep the news secret from a child.

SAFETY FIRST: A counselor buckles Eric Weidmann up for some fun at Camp Kindle, which hosts kids affected by cancer.

“It’s not a matter of when will they find out; it’s a matter of who will tell them, and when and how they find out,” says Steggles, who has counselled adult cancer patients for 25 years. “If you go through chemotherapy, you’ll lose your hair, and they’ll figure it out. Or someone else will blurt it out – a friend will say, ‘Oh, your mother has cancer.’ It never works out well [to hear the news] that way.”

When Linda Weidmann of Fort Saskatchewan was diagnosed in January 2007 with Stage 3A breast cancer, there was no question that she and her husband would be honest with their children, no matter how difficult it was for everybody.

“If you sugarcoat it or you don’t tell them the truth and things turn bad, then how can that child trust the surviving parent?” Weidmann says. She and her husband told Eric and Sarah, then five and nearly four years old, “Mommy’s got cancer.”

The children were familiar with the illness because their grandmother had recently been treated for lung cancer, but even if your children don’t know someone who has cancer, they’ve likely heard the word. “Kids are astute,” Weidmann says. “They see it. It’s talked about on TV. They know.”

Still, when telling a child that a parent has cancer, it’s important to give the news in an age-appropriate manner. If your children are far apart in age, you might want to tell them separately. “You have to address the child’s level of understanding,” Steggles says. “Because of age and maturity, they’ll react in different ways, with anger, sadness, or acting out.”

TAKING OFF: Eric Weidmann enjoys some craft time at Camp Kindle.

Some parents have an idea of how their children might react, based on how the child has reacted to bad news in the past. If possible, it’s helpful to role-play scenarios with another adult before sitting down with your child: that allows you to anticipate how they’ll react, the questions they may ask, and how you’ll answer.

Weidmann and her husband didn’t offer a long speech when they told their children about her cancer. Instead, they allowed Eric and Sarah to digest the news, think about it, and come up with questions. The couple was prepared for whatever their children might ask, and the children asked the hardest question first: “Is Mommy going to die?”

“Again, you have to be honest with the kids,” recalls Weidmann, who didn’t know her prognosis, only that it wasn’t promising. “So we just said, ‘We hope not. Mommy’s going to get treatment and we hope Mommy won’t die, but we don’t know for sure.’”

She also cried along with her children, which experts agree can be cathartic for everyone. “Showing emotions is not such a bad thing,” Steggles says. “It shows your children that it’s OK to be emotional.”
Weidmann’s treatment, which included a double mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy, was successful. Throughout the two years that she was under doctors’ care, she continued answering her children’s questions, providing them with much-needed comfort. They did the same for her.

“My kids made me stronger through it,” she says, underscoring another reason it’s crucial for parents to be honest about their cancer: because you can’t share the good if they’re unaware of the bad. “You have a really lousy day, or your treatment takes forever, and you battle the traffic coming home and then you come in the house and the kids are all happy to see you, and happy that you’re home,” she says. “It just lifts your spirits.”