Telling Children About a Lung Cancer Diagnosis
Parents want to protect their children, but trying to keep lung cancer a secret is not a good idea. Children need to know what's going on, too.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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A patient who receives a lung cancer diagnosis probably will dread telling friends and family — but that dread will even more acute when breaking the news to a child.
Nonetheless, being honest with children is really what's best for them, says JoAnne Morris, oncology and palliative care chaplain at Baptist Hospital East in Louisville, Ky. While it might be an adult’s intent to protect children from this bad news, “We can end up complicating things for them and making it scarier than necessary," Morris says.
Navigating Scary Waters
You want to continue to build trust with children — not destroy it inadvertently by trying to keep a lung cancer diagnosis a secret.
"Being consistent and honest are two very important elements in helping children navigate through this scary thing that has entered their lives," says Morris. "If adults are honest, the children know they can trust them."
Though you may want to spare children from fear and anxiety, they can handle the truth better than you may think — and learning that you weren't honest with them can do real damage.
"If we minimize, make promises we are not sure can be kept, or if children hear information from other sources besides the adults who care for them, they will not know what they can believe and will feel increased anxiety and isolation," says Morris.
When you're talking to children about lung cancer, it's important to keep their age in mind. Explain what they can expect in regard to lung cancer symptoms and treatment, and that the patient may feel or act a little differently. And while children deserve nothing less than the truth, explain those things in a way that they can understand.
"Children need the truth shared with them in developmentally appropriate language," says Morris. You don't need to explain things in explicit detail, she says, but "they do need to know what to expect."
How the Cancer Diagnosis Will Affect Children
It’s important for children to understand how the lung cancer diagnosis will change their lives, and how their loved one will change because of lung cancer. Emphasize what won't change within their daily routine and schedule, but allow them to be a part of how the family's routine and dynamic will need to be altered.
"Having them participate as part of the team to creatively think about how things need to be different [giving them some ownership and control over their lives] is all a part of caring well for children impacted by a family member's cancer diagnosis," says Morris. If they ask if they can help, tell them yes — children can carry glasses of water, fetch blankets, and do other tasks that can help the patient.
And don't assume what your child needs or wants — ask, and listen. "Often children will tell you what they need, how much they want to know, how involved they want to be," says Morris. Follow your child's lead, and don't keep her in the dark about what's going on. It's much more frightening to be confused and not know what to expect than to be involved — even with something as frightening as a family member's lung cancer.
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