One of the most common parental instincts when telling their children that they have cancer is to avoid talking about what is really happening to them and for them to want to appear strong, hiding what they are going through. Sometimes even hiding what is evident. However, using the word 'cancer', seeking to free it from the stigma it currently has, can be of vital importance to establish an open channel of communication the child can resort to if needed. "It is important to be open to any question and tell our children to take their time to think about it, that we are there to answer their questions," says Marta de la Fuente, head of the Psycho-oncology Unit at MD Anderson Cancer Center Madrid, although each family works differently and that is something to take into account.
"If we want our children to have a healthy relationship with what they feel, they have to see that we also talk about things naturally at home," she says. "It is important to speak about things as if they are normal - to say 'today I am a little tired' or 'today I am worried because I am waiting for some results', since all this helps the child to see that it is normal to express how we feel".
Along these same lines, Ms. de la Fuente recommends making a promise between parents and children to not hide information and to use sincerity as the basis of a healthy relationship between each other and between children and the disease. The psycho-oncologist insists on her patients carrying out this pact, even though they have hidden certain information from the children in the past to avoid worrying them. In that case, "we must not blame ourselves, but rather take responsibility and recognize that perhaps we have not managed somethings quite as well as we could have".
Give information, but avoid information overload
Once you have given the news, information can be important when assimilating that a loved one has cancer. It lets them know what is happening and better understand how it develops, which, although the information is negative, can result in a feeling calmness. “Information relieves anxiety, it helps to avoid misinformation and uncertainty,” explains the psycho-oncologist, who explains that this should be done “whenever the child wants; you have to ask them whether they wants us to tell them what cancer is or not”.
Furthermore, this information can alleviate certain concerns, preventing children from feeling the need to resort to other means to find answers. Still, addressing the risks of internet searches with them is vital. Therefore, the psychologist states that "it is better not to search on Google because it will overwhelm us with too much information, who we must trust is the doctor". It is less likely that children, especially adolescents, will use the Internet if they are trust that we are being honest with them.
Involving them is part of normalization
Right from the moment we get the diagnosis, cancer is going to become part of our family dynamics for more or less long periods of time, even after our treatment is completed or the disease remits. During that time, there will be changes that children should be aware of. In addition, we must try to make them feel involved.
A clear example is hair loss. As it is a significant change, it is important to explain the process to them so they can prepare themselves mentally. We can also try to get them to take part in decision-making about how to manage it. Some questions that Marta de la Fuente suggests are: "What would you like me to wear at home, a scarf or a wig?" Or, "and when I pick you up from school, do you mind if I wear a hat?" And you can even suggest that they help you get ready or choose what you are going wear.
In any case, the specialist stresses that it is essential to make it something natural, be clear about and explain how we feel and try to have a healthier relationship with the unpleasant emotions that come up along the way. “We must try to speak to children naturally, not focusing on the worrying aspects, but from the more normal point of view”, and she points out that, despite being a complicated challenge, “it is a good time to work on emotional intelligence”.