5 Reasons You Should Be Honest With Your Child About Her Cancer Diagnosis

Learning that your child has cancer can be devastating. One of the most difficult parts of a cancer diagnosis is telling your child.

Your first instinct might be to protect her—not tell her how sick she is, try to hide the truth about cancer, etc. However, I encourage giving simple and honest medical information that the child needs at that moment.

Here are 5 reasons why when it comes to cancer, honesty is often the best policy.

1. You Can Help Her Get The Right Information About A Cancer Diagnosis.

Young children probably don’t hear much about cancer outside of their homes or the hospital. But older kids and teenagers hear about it from outside sources all the time—friends talking about family members with cancer, ads for cancer walks, and so on.

Cancer has even been a trend in popular young adult entertainment, like the book, The Fault in Our Stars, and TV shows like “Chasing Life,” and “The Red Band Society.”

Outside sources aren’t always accurate. Even when they are, they do not apply to everyone with cancer because all patients and cases are different.

Learning false information can cause your kid to have unrealistic expectations about cancer, and could increase her level of fear and anxiety.

2. You’ll Have An Opportunity To Ease His Fears About The Hospital.

For kids with a cancer diagnosis, there are many unknowns—as well as fear of the unknown. Your child might have all sorts of questions, ranging from “How did it happen?” to “Why do I have to do this?”

Being honest will help clear up some of those unknowns. And if you don’t know the answers, don’t be afraid to ask the members of your child’s care team for help.

For example, it’s not uncommon for kids with cancer to be afraid of getting radiation because of all of the machines in the room. A child life specialist spends time with caregivers and children at time of consult in order to help prepare him on his developmental level.

We offer tours of the treatment room and even time in the radiation simulation lab. This helps kids see how the machines work ahead of time, and hopefully helps put kids at ease once they know how treatment works and that it does not hurt.

3. Being Honest Builds Trust With Your Child.

According to the American Society for Clinical Oncology, young children—particularly those under age 7—often get nervous that their parents are going to abandon them at the hospital, or that the medical staff is trying to take them away.

Telling her the truth—that you’ll be there for her—will give her more confidence about going to the hospital.

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4. You Can Tell Your Child The Pain Won’t Last Forever.

It’s also important to tell your kid the truth about pain. Some tests and treatments hurt, and it can be difficult to tell your child that he might feel some pain.

However, if you tell him something will be painless and then it is not, the trust can be broken. This could cause him to be uncooperative—or even more fearful—in the future.

That doesn’t mean you need to scare your child. Let him know that the pain won’t last forever, and that the treatment will make him better. If this is too much for you to take on, seek the help of the medical team to do this for you.

5. Accurate Information Can Help Your Child Maintain Self-Esteem.

It’s not unusual for kids with an illness like cancer to feel “different” and struggle with self-esteem, says the American Academy of Family Physicians. This can be caused by a number of factors, such as:

  • Feeling alone or not being able to be at social events with friends
  • Experiencing physical changes like hair loss, weight gain, and fatigue
  • Not doing well academically as a result of missing school

When you tell your child cancer is not her fault, that other kids go through it, and that all these treatments are designed to help her return to her everyday life, she’s likely to feel better.

Low self-esteem can also come from self-blame. Young children might think that cancer is a punishment, and that they must have done something wrong.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, kids who have low self-esteem because they blame themselves for their illness are more likely to suffer from depression.

So, it’s important to tell your child that she didn’t do anything wrong to “cause” her cancer. Knowing that she’s a good kid, and other good kids also get cancer, will go a long way toward building up her self-esteem and confidence.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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