My spouse was recently diagnosed with cancer. How should we discuss this with our teenage children?

Shannon Coon, oncology social worker at CancerCare in New York City

SHANNON COON: Teenagers sense when something is wrong more often than adults think they do, so it is essential to discuss a parent’s diagnosis as soon as possible. You can set the tone and help your teenagers understand what your family is experiencing now and what they can expect in the weeks or months ahead.

Before talking with your teenagers, you may want to prepare what you’ll say and even practice with your spouse. Consider your children’s ages, personalities and any previous experiences with illness. If your teens know someone who has had cancer, they may naturally make comparisons and assumptions. You’ll want to correct any inaccurate information or misconceptions to help them better understand your spouse’s individual cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Try to use a calm, reassuring voice, but it’s OK if you find yourself becoming sad or emotional. It is also OK for your teens to express their own thoughts and emotions in the moment. Teenagers often seek independence, but they will still look to you for support.

Do your best to explain the cancer diagnosis and treatment plan and how it may impact their lives. By providing specific information on what kind of treatment your spouse will receive and how often, teenagers can better plan their day-to-day lives. Prepare teenagers as well for any expected physical or cognitive changes.

Do your best to provide your teenagers with accurate information that reflects the reality of the medical situation and expected outcomes. Teenagers deserve honesty; if they think you are hiding something, it could impact their trust in you and their willingness to come to you with questions and concerns. If you do not know the answer to a question, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know. I will try to find out the answer and let you know.” Remember that if you do not provide your children with information, they may create their own explanations, which can be more frightening than the facts.

Know that teenagers may have a different reaction to the news than younger children do. They may ask for more information about the diagnosis or need more time to work through their emotions. Respect your teens’ privacy, and let them know they can seek support from other sources.

Use the first conversation as a starting point of an ongoing process that should extend throughout your family’s cancer journey. Reassure your teens that they are allowed to ask questions and talk about their feelings at any time. Let them know their concerns are important to you too and that you will do your best to help them stick to their usual routine at school and in other activities. Also, remind them that no matter what changes the cancer brings, you will continue to love and support them in any way you can.

TALKING TO TEENS // The American Society of Clinical Oncology has more tips for talking to teenagers about a cancer diagnosis. // The National Cancer Institute provides a guide for teens who have a parent with cancer.