#BloodCancerAwarenessMonth Q&A: "Is my child old enough to know Mommy has cancer?"

Over the years, I've received thousands of emails about Bald in the Land of Big Hair, a memoir about my experience with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A cancer diagnosis brings a firestorm of questions, and as a survivor, I can sympathize, but I'm not an expert; many times I just don't have the answers. So this year during Blood Cancer Awareness Month, I've asked Ashley Rodgers (Masters in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling), to respond to some FAQs about the emotional and psychological aspects of the cancer journey. 

Q: At what age is a child old enough to be told that a parent has cancer?

Ashley says: Cancer can be a scary word, even for adults, but communication in relationships is necessary at any age. Children generally know when something is going on, even when they do not know specifically. It is better to communicate what is happening, otherwise children typically will blame themselves for the tension. The key is to talk with your child in a way that is age appropriate.

Young children who have never experienced sickness or loss might not understand the depth of the concept. In this case, it is best to start the conversation in general and abstract ways. Talk about how you are feeling and what it means for your child. For example, perhaps treatments are resulting in lack of energy, irritability, or memory loss. Explain that sometimes when you are not feeling well, these things happen but that it is because of your medicine and not because they did something wrong or that you are not interested. This will help them understand in a way and not lay blame on themselves.

Older children have cognitively developed further and are able to understand what cancer is and how it can be scary. But with knowledge and understanding, comes comfort in knowing what to expect. Older children and adolescents want to be treated with respect and they know when something is being kept from them. Instead of reinforcing rebellion by protecting them from the news, invite closeness with conversation. Tell them what is happening to you, and what the options are down the road through treatment and further. Allow them to receive and process the information. Be available for them and ready for their questions. If you do not know the answers, tell them you will find out together.

When it comes down to it, any age is old enough. Just talk with them. No one knows your children better than you do. You know what they can handle and in what amount.

For more resources on how to talk to your kids check out: Straight Talk to Kids on the NYU Cancer Institute website.

We welcome your questions and comments.

*No part of this blog or the book Bald in the Land of Big Hair should be misconstrued as or substituted for medical advice.


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