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Why It Is Important to Share a Parent’s Cancer Diagnosis With Children

mom with cancer playing with daughter

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study notes that many parents fighting cancer have a hard time sharing the diagnosis with their children.
  • Doctors, therapists, and online resources can help parents with ways to explain the news.
  • Parents’ handling of the diagnosis can help children understand ways to cope and process their feelings.

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. In 2020, the disease was responsible for nearly 10 million deaths. When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, it impacts the entire family, especially the children. And according to a new study, the amount of information kids receive about a parental diagnosis carries significant weight.

The study, presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology’s ESMO Congress 2021, found that keeping children in the dark about a parent’s bout with cancer can have a detrimental impact on their mental and emotional well-being. Although it can be difficult to have the discussion, resources from doctors to therapists can help parents have that critical talk with their kids.

The Study

Researchers from Institute Salah Azaiez examined a study sample of 103 Tunisian parents diagnosed with cancer. Participants were given a questionnaire asking about the parental disease and treatment, family environment, sociocultural beliefs, their children’s ages, and how the children were coping with the parent’s prognosis.

Among the findings, 82.5% of the participants told their children about their illness, but 41.7% of those surveyed didn’t provide the whole truth about their cancer diagnosis to their children and 17.5% didn’t share any details about their illness with their children.

“This finding is not surprising, but demonstrates the missed opportunity to inform children [so they can] begin preparing for possible negative outcomes and to directly address questions or concerns that children may have regarding their parent’s illness,” explains psychologist Sujin Ann-Yi, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of palliative, rehabilitation, and integrative medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Sujin Ann-Yi, PhD

This finding is not surprising but demonstrates the missed opportunity to inform children [so they can] begin preparing for possible negative outcomes and directly address questions or concerns that children may have regarding their parent’s illness.

— Sujin Ann-Yi, PhD

The study results also note that almost all parents (96%) saw behavioral changes in their children as parents battled their illness.

“Anxiety, depression, and violent behavior were seen in the majority of cases—35%, 21%, and 21%, respectively. These reactions were present in almost all the children, but they were not the predominant feature in some of them and this depended on factors including age… Addiction was reported by 6.2% of the participants; however, this number might be largely underestimated as parents can feel ashamed to bring this up even to doctors,” notes Sinen Korbi, MD, a medical oncologist at Salah Azaiez Institute. Dr. Korbi is the lead author of the study.

Although the study sample was small, it mirrored what experts say they’ve observed on a larger scale: A cancer diagnosis for any member of the family is hard on everyone involved.

Difficulties for Parents and Children

Kimberly Johnson’s children were 10 and 12 years old when she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. She said knew she would have to rely on her faith and belief in God to guide her through the process. She also knew that she and her husband, Jared, would have to share the news with their daughters.

After she’d taken the time to fully understand her prognosis and treatment plan, the Johnsons treated their girls to breakfast at their favorite restaurant, to make it a comfortable setting. They told them about mom’s cancer diagnosis.

“We kept the explanation simple and allowed them to ask questions if they wanted more information. Their ages were a key factor in our decision to take this approach,” she explained. Being upfront with her children helped them cope with the news.

But not all parents feel comfortable in discussing the situation. When a mother is scared for herself, or a father doesn’t know how to deal with his prognosis, it can be difficult to share anything with the children. Parents may also have concerns about whether their children can handle the news or wonder if it will be too stressful.

Many parents may see not sharing the news as a way to protect their kids. But children can feel alienated or hurt when they realize they have been out of the loop with such an important part of the family dynamic.

Experts note that when parents don’t share their prognosis with their children, the kids may become scared and confused if a parent’s condition starts to deteriorate. It may be more difficult to cope with what’s happening without advance warning or knowledge.

Erin Jones, LCSW

I am a firm believer in being honest, open, authentic, and age-appropriate when discussing the facts of the diagnosis. Use concrete language and be OK with saying, ‘I don’t know.’

— Erin Jones, LCSW

Parents acknowledging that they need help in sharing the details can be key. Experts recommend asking the oncologist for resources, reaching out to a therapist or a medical social worker, or even visiting informative websites for help in explaining the news.

“I am a firm believer in being honest, open, authentic, and age-appropriate when discussing the facts of the diagnosis. Use concrete language and be OK with saying, ‘I don’t know.’ Ask them if they have any questions about what information has been shared,” advises Erin Jones, LCSW, a therapist and premier consultant at e.Piphany Concepts and Consulting.

It’s important to also give children the freedom to react and cope in their own way. Younger children may become more clingy and needy, even if they don’t understand what’s wrong. Older children may become more distant as they process their feelings.

Giving them space and even seeking out a psychologist for them to talk to can be beneficial. Ultimately, you know your child best, and deciding the way to present the news, what to share, and what help they will need is a big part of the process.

How the Study Findings Help

The study helps highlight the vacuum that exists in guiding parents through the process of sharing their cancer diagnosis with their children. Doctors and therapists can help them take the first step in understanding their treatment plan, and garnering resources on how to share it effectively with the family.

“Open, thorough, and consistent communication about the happenings of treatment will take the family far!” Jones concludes.

What This Means For You

As a parent, it can be hard to explain tough things to kids, such as a cancer diagnosis. If it’s scary for you, it can be scary for them. As the study notes, discussing cancer with your children is difficult. However, open communication can make a difference. Don’t be afraid to reach out for the help and resources that you need and do what’s best for your children and your family.

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2 Sources
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  1. World Health Organization. Cancer. Updated September 21, 2021.

  2. Korbi S, Berrazega Y, Nesrine M, Rachdi H, Daoud N, Boussen H. Tunisian children and adolescents coping with parental cancer. Ann Oncol. 2021;32(suppl_5):S1096-S1101. doi:10.1016/annonc/annonc710