A diagnosis of head and neck cancer affects the whole family. As a parent, it’s natural to want to protect your children from fear and anxiety. It can also be very difficult to switch roles and allow yourself to be cared for. The urge to shield children and keep secrets in this situation is normal.
But children, even very young ones, are perceptive. The slightest changes in daily routines or dynamics in the household can alarm children and have emotional repercussions. In fact, parents tend to greatly underestimate the effect a cancer diagnosis has on their children.1WelchAS,Wadsworth ME,Compas BE.Adjustment of children and adolescents to parentalcancer.Parents' and children's perspectives. Cancer. 1996 Apr 1;77(7):1409-1418.
While the majority of children will suffer no long-term emotional or behavioral problems as a result of a parent’s diagnosis and treatment, they are at a higher risk for these sorts of issues than children with healthy parents.2 Osborn T. The psychosocial impact of parental cancer on children and adolescents: a systematic review.Psycho-Oncology.2007;16(2):101-126. About one-quarter of children with a very ill parent will experience anxiety and problems sleeping, concentrating and completing tasks at school.3 Moore CW, Rauch PK. Addressing the needs of children when a parent has cancer. In: Holland JC, editor.Psycho-Oncology.Oxford; Oxford University Press; 2010;2:527-531. Your child’s gender, age and personality all have an influence on how he or she will cope, as do the severity of your illness and the makeup of your family.4 Thastum M, Watson M, Kienbacher C, et al. Prevalence and predictors of emotional and behavioural functioning of children where a parent has cancer: a multinational study.Cancer.2009;115(17):4030-4039.
There are ways to help your children through this difficult time. Kids who are told about a parent’s cancer diagnosis and who feel comfortable communicating about the illness with their families are generally better able to cope with the associated anxiety. Children who are not told tend to struggle more with the changes and emotions.5 Rosenheim E,Reicher R. Informing children about a parent's terminal illness. J Child Psychol Psychiatry.1985 Nov;26(6):995-998. Therefore, adopting an attitude of openness and honesty is the first step to helping your family adjust and move forward together.
Before telling your children about your cancer, take some time to prepare.
Tailor the information you give your children to their age and maturity. All children are different, so you’ll have to use your best judgment and your knowledge of your child’s personality and temperament to decide how best to talk to your child and help him or her cope with what is happening.
It is important to keep communicating with your children throughout your cancer journey.
Finally, know that you will have your own emotions and difficulties dealing with your diagnosis and treatment, and the way you communicate with your children won’t always be perfect. That is normal. It is important to distinguish between your needs and your child’s—you’re the one fighting cancer, but it does affect the whole family. When your own emotions are running out of control, take care of your own needs first. Do the best you can, and your family will understand.
Know your children. Knowing what your kids can handle, how they can handle it, when you can tell them—it’s not easy.Barry W. / Ronnie W. (palatomaxillary and low grade adenocarcinoma of minor salivary gland cancer survivor)
You will need to explain a great deal to help your children understand what is going on and what to expect in the coming weeks and months. This section helps you prepare for this discussion with your children.Dealing with Treatment
Setting children’s expectations about each step of your treatment, side effects and after-care can help them cope with changes. This section will help you explain treatment to kids of all ages.Dealing with Death and Dying
Dealing with death and dying is one of the most difficult emotional challenges for the children of cancer patients. This page offers advice to help children cope with their fear of your death and the process of dying.FAQs for Children
This page is a collection of questions children frequently ask about head and neck cancer and the answers presented in terms most children can understand.Resources
A variety of books and websites can help you and your children navigate their emotional journey through your head and neck cancer.
2 Osborn T. The psychosocial impact of parental cancer on children and adolescents: a systematic review.Psycho-Oncology.2007;16(2):101-126.
3 Moore CW, Rauch PK. Addressing the needs of children when a parent has cancer. In: Holland JC, editor.Psycho-Oncology.Oxford; Oxford University Press; 2010;2:527-531.
4 Thastum M, Watson M, Kienbacher C, et al. Prevalence and predictors of emotional and behavioural functioning of children where a parent has cancer: a multinational study.Cancer.2009;115(17):4030-4039.