Talking with Children about Cancer
“I’ve got to get up and go to work.” Chadwick Boseman speaks about knowing two boys with terminal cancer, who said they would stay alive until Black Panther was released. “When I found out that they… It means a lot.”
Boseman’s privacy about his own stage 4 colon cancer invoked many feelings in me. How do I, as a cancer survivor with a child, speak about a person’s choice to keep cancer a “secret,” or in Boseman’s case, to talk about cancer with an inner circle but not publicly? I read many articles about Boseman, until I came across this one by Christina Royster, which focused on the ways Boseman was a hero on and off screen. Royster featured the video I include here. I listened, I saw Boseman’s tears, I felt his emotion, and I knew that he was not keeping cancer a secret. He was breaking silences and stigmas in his way, using his public position to speak about Black creativity, life purpose, everyday heroes, and the strength in vulnerability of those with cancer.
There is a distinction between keeping one’s cancer a secret from everyone, versus being private about who we include in our cancer journey. About her breast cancer, Audre Lorde writes, “Is this pain and despair around me a result of cancer, or has it been released by cancer?” I felt this question deeply during my cancer, and wondered daily how to talk with my daughter about the disease and the emotions we all felt but struggled to express. What was a result, and what was being released? I am still teasing this question out.
I knew I couldn’t protect my daughter from the physical and emotional changes that would come with diagnosis and treatment. So, I researched and wrote this Q and A for parents like me who needed to know what to say about cancer to our kids–our inner circle. While this set of questions and answers is written for children, use your sense about how it is best to respond for your child, based on their age and emotional response. (You can download this resource here.)
What is cancer?
Cancer is a group of diseases in which the body’s cells grow and divide uncontrollably and quickly.
How does cancer begin?
Cells are the basic units that make up the human body. Cells grow and divide to make new cells as the body needs them. Usually, cells die when they get too old or damaged. Then, new cells take their place.
Cancer begins when genetic changes interfere with this orderly process. Cells start to grow uncontrollably. These cells may form a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread. Some types of cancer do not form a tumor. These include leukemias, most types of lymphoma, and myeloma.
Can I get cancer? Can I catch it?
Cancer is not a disease that transfers from one person to another. You cannot catch cancer like you can a cold. The chance of a child developing cancer is relatively low. If it happens, doctors do everything they can to treat and cure. There are many people working hard to help patients with cancer survive and thrive through treatment.
What happens when someone has cancer?
A person starts with a diagnosis. The medical team uses tests to determine if the person has cancer. Then the team decides on a treatment, including surgical procedures and medicine. The treatment often changes the person’s body and affects them emotionally. Sometimes the cancer comes back. Sometimes people go through treatment their whole lives. And sometimes people don’t survive cancer. Doctors do everything they can to treat and cure. There are many people working hard to help patients with cancer survive and thrive through treatment.
What can we do to help a friend or loved one with cancer?
Have age-appropriate conversations about cancer with your children. Talk about what happens during cancer. Talk about emotions your child might have. Do activities and read stories about cancer, feelings, and use creativity to help process the experience. Many studies demonstrate the importance of using the arts to express emotions and support well-being during cancer. Here are some suggestions (from the book, Because… Someone I Love Has Cancer). You can download more activities here.
Role play what happens during cancer with dolls or stuffed animals.
Create a feeling collage using drawings, words, and pictures from magazines.
Plant a seed or garden and talk about what things need to grow.
Go on a neighborhood walk and notice details in your surroundings. Talk about how things change during different times of day and seasons.
Make play dough and sculpt feelings.
Tell jokes and laugh together.
Create a special saying board with healing words and inspirational quotes.
Tell shared stories of favorite memories.
Make a feelings clock to tell the time of our feelings.
Talk about how things change and how they stay the same.
Write troubles on slips of paper, and have a stuffed animal or drawing of a creature eat them.
Make a family or friend portrait.
Write a letter to the person with cancer, such as:
Dear _, I just want you to know… One thing that scares me is… I really like when you… Something I’ve been wanting to tell you is… I don’t really like when… Most importantly, you should know that…
Part of Chelle’s Story about Her Mother’s Breast Cancer
Cancer and Children Resources
American Cancer Society: (2003). Because… someone I love has cancer: Kids’ activity book.
American Cancer Society: Children and Cancer
Camp Kesem: A nationwide community driven by college student leaders that supports children through and beyond their parent’s cancer.
Cancer.Net: How Cancer Affects Family Life.
Cancer Care. Helping Children Understand Cancer.
Cancer Support Community. Speaking Frankly About Cancer: What Do I Tell the Kids?
National Cancer Institute: Patient Education Publications
Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. When a Parent Has Cancer.
Susan G. Komen Orange County: Meeting the most critical needs in our communities and investing in breakthrough research to prevent and cure breast cancer.