Hester Hill Schnipper Photo courtesy of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center​

CANCER PATIENTS who are parents may expend a great deal of energy thinking about how their disease will affect their children. It’s natural to be concerned about the effects of your diagnosis on your children’s emotional well-being and development, especially if they are school-age or younger.

​​Children who are given age-appropriate information and whose routines are not too disrupted usually learn to adapt. This is reassuring for parents who expect to get through treatment and be well for a period of time—hopefully a long time. Parents who must contend with an unfavorable prognosis face a bigger challenge.

You know your children best. Trust your instincts, but realize they will be colored by your own intense feelings. Talk about your strategy with your spouse, a clergy member or a friend before you share the news with your kids. In most cases, you can take time to process your diagnosis, but don’t put off sharing the news with children too long. The atmosphere in your home will change immediately after you’re diagnosed, and your children may sense the shift. Secrecy may only fan their fears.

To Learn More

Telling Kids About Cancer provides advice for sharing news about your cancer diagnosis with children of all ages.

CancerCare for Kids features podcasts, educational workshops and free counseling for parents, children and adolescents.

Raising an Emotionally Health​y Child When a Parent Is Sick is a thoughtful resource written by psychiatrists Paula K. Rauch and Anna C. Muriel. Available at bookstores ​and online.

Here are some guidelines:​

1) Be honest. Resist the temptation to lie about sensitive matters.

2) Avoid euphemisms. Your children may overhear words such as “cancer” or “chemotherapy.” Be sure they know what these words mean.

3) Give them information gradually. You don’t need to overwhelm them in a single conversation. Think of it like sex education; bring up the subject, tell them what they need to know immediately, and be prepared to revisit the topic.

4) Find additional helpers. Talk to your family members, close friends and your children’s teachers about what is happening at home. Ask them to be an extra set of eyes and ears and to be ready to provide additional support to your kids.

5) If your children are struggling, connect them with a counselor at school, or ask your health care team or pediatrician for recommendations.

6) Prepare your children for big changes and events, such as hair loss, hospitalizations and surgeries, before they happen.

7) Consider taking your children to visit your treatment center and meet your caregivers. This is almost always reassuring to them.

8) Have an answer ready if your children ask if you are going to die. Unless your death is imminent, it’s OK to say “no.” You’ll have an opportunity to prepare your children if the time comes. Here is one possible response: “This is not the time to worry. If that time ever comes, I promise that I will tell you.”

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor who served as the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.