Parents who receive a cancer diagnosis may try to protect their children from frightening information about treatment or side effects. But many underestimate their children's awareness of their life-threatening diagnosis, say researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Researchers talked to 37 mothers with breast cancer about their illness and their children's reactions to their diagnosis and treatment. In addition, the mothers' 31 6- to 18-year-old children talked to a child psychiatrist about their experience with their mother's illness.
All of the kids interviewed, with the exception of the two youngest, had heard about cancer as a disease before their mother's cancer diagnosis. They reported learning about cancer from TV advertisements and films, from knowing a friend or family member with cancer, or from science lessons at school.
Most children said they'd suspected something was wrong with their moms before being told about the diagnosis. Several also reported being upset that their moms hid the seriousness of the situation and felt excluded from family discussions.
When it came to cancer treatment, kids often felt upset because their mothers had to be in the hospital for surgical treatment, and they identified chemotherapy and hair loss as the worst aspects of their mother's treatment. Many younger kids felt particularly fearful or sad about their mother's hair loss.
Only children under 10 reported having "too much information" about their mother's diagnosis, and several older kids said they needed more information about breast cancer, the available treatments, and their personal risk of cancer. Some even expressed a desire to speak to their mother's doctors about her treatment and prognosis.
What This Means to You. Having a parent diagnosed with cancer can be stressful for a family, but the results of this study indicate that hiding the diagnosis and cancer treatment may not be a good idea because children often suspect a parent's illness on their own. The age and maturity of your child may dictate how much information you share about a diagnosis. Here are a few tips on talking about illness with your child:
- If possible, both you and your partner or spouse should talk to your child about the diagnosis.
- Plan ahead. Don't break the news about cancer while in a car or public place, making it difficult for your child to ask questions or express emotions.
- Ask your doctor or your child's doctor what to expect, based on your child's development and age.
- Find out what your child already knows about cancer, based on exposure to the topic on TV, movies, or in school.
- Seek help. Cancer organizations such as the American Cancer Society can provide literature or suggestions for additional online or offline reading.
Source: Gillian Forrest, Caroline Plumb, Sue Ziebland, Alan Stein; British Medical Journal, April 29, 2006.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2006