Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Parenting With Cancer: Out in the Open

But not telling kids anything, they and other experts say, is a big mistake, even if the parent’s intention is a good one: to protect his or her children.


​Why talk to your kids about your cancer? “Kids sense what’s wrong and fill it in with things that are worse,” says Jen Singer (pictured with son Nicholas).
“It’s very hard to keep a secret like cancer,” says Harpham. “If there’s a conspiracy of silence, children  can’t turn to their parents for guidance or help. They may turn to people or ways of coping that are not healthy.”
And talking to your children about your cancer may actually help them grow, by helping them learn to cope with difficult situations. “When you tell children the truth, you are helping children learn to deal with reality in hopeful, healthy ways,” says Harpham. “And isn’t that what parenting is all about?”
What’s more, even if you think you can shield your children from the truth, you probably can’t. Children often know that something is not right, even if you don’t tell them. “Kids sense what’s wrong and fill it in with things that are worse,” says Singer. Her younger son asked her not to tell him when she was having PET scans beforehand. He wanted to know only after she got good news. He was 11 at the time, so she honored his wish. After her last clear scan, she picked him up from school and told him she’d gone for a scan and the result.
His response: “Yeah, I knew something was going on. I knew anyway.”
Helping Kids Cope
For many parents, the question is not whether to tell their children about their cancer, but how to do it. And then, how to help them deal with it. 
The answer depends on the child’s age, individual needs, and preferences (see “Age Matters” on the next page for details), but some rules hold for any child, says Harpham. A parent’s top two strategies, she says, are to “establish and maintain open lines of communication, and always tell the truth couched in love and hopefulness.” Honesty means being upfront even if you don’t know an answer to a question. Tell your child you don’t know, Harpham advises, and that, by a specified deadline, you will find out. 
Maintaining a routine can also go a long way toward keeping your child’s life as normal as possible. Thompson recommends identifying the parts of your family routine that can stay the same: activities like family pizza night every Friday. “Children thrive on routine, whether they’re little ones or big ones,” she says.
It’s also essential to recognize that you don’t have to go it alone—and to ask for and accept help. “I let other people take care of us rather than forcing my family to soldier through it silently,” says Singer. “Neighbors took my kids to swim team practice and to their houses for play dates. They spent afternoons eating ice pops, drawing with driveway chalk, and swimming in pools belonging to folks who weren’t family or my closest of friends.”

​"Laughter is what gets you and your family through the hell and back that is cancer."
Many people are timid about asking for help, or find that they’re overwhelmed by the offers and how to  organize them, especially in the middle of treatment. Singer suggests trying the free website Friends and family can sign up for the site and mark which of your needs they can meet—whether it’s picking your kids up from soccer, driving you to treatment, having the kids over for play dates, or helping arrange that regular Friday pizza night.
Singer didn’t know about the site when she was sick, but she did quickly learn that she had a network of people to lean on—and her children were better off because of it. “Later, my son Nicholas, who was 10 when I was sick, told me that they didn’t feel too overwhelmed while I was in chemo,” she says, “because ‘everyone kept us so busy.’ ”

Helping Other Parents With Cancer
Since launching in April 2011, Singer’s website has taken off. Two months after it debuted, it was already garnering 10,000 views a month. Today that number has doubled, with new contributions from fellow survivors, writers and social workers, and an organized listing of resources compiled specifically for parents coping with a cancer diagnosis.
Singer eventually plans to expand the site so that “people who are emailing me now have a bigger resource than what it is right now.” In the works: forums and message boards dedicated to the specific concerns of parents who have cancer.
“This is taking it to a level where we can create a community [in which] parents with cancer can talk to each other about what’s going on,” says Thompson. And realize they are not alone.

Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer in Collingswood, N.J.


Receive monthly updates, including information about web exclusives, events, resources, articles and highlights from new issues—direct to your email inbox. Be among the first to hear the latest news from Cancer Today! Click here to sign up!