- Cancer Information
- Family and friends
- Talking to kids about cancer
- Talking about the diagnosis
- Involving others
Below we discuss the best ways to involve others to help talk about the cancer diagnosis with children who may be affected.
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There are several ways to ensure kids hear a consistent message from people who are involved in their lives.
Tell key adults
Share the diagnosis with other people who talk with your kids (grandparents, friends, the nanny, babysitters) and tell them what you plan to say to your children so that you all communicate the same message.
Talk to other people who have cancer
Often the best support and ideas come from people who’ve already been there. You’ll realise you’re not alone and you can ask them how they handled things.
Ask a professional
It may also be helpful to get some tips from a professional, such as an oncology nurse or social worker, psychologist or other health professionals at the hospital
Many parents wonder if they should tell the school when someone in the family has been diagnosed with cancer. If things are unsettled at home, school can be a place where kids can be themselves with their friends and carry on life as normal.
When the school is aware of the situation at home, staff may be more understanding of behaviour changes and can provide support. In fact, school staff are often the first to notice shifts in a child’s behaviour that may indicate distress.
A cancer diagnosis in the family can also have an impact on academic performance, so the student may be entitled to special provisions. This can be particularly important in the final years of high school. Some states and territories have schemes to help a student enter tertiary study if they have experienced long-term educational disadvantage because of their or a family member’s cancer diagnosis.
Ways to involve the school include:
- Tell the principal, the school counsellor and your child’s teachers. This helps the school to create a positive and supportive environment for the student.
- Let relevant staff know what your child has been told about the cancer and what they understand cancer to mean, so staff can respond consistently.
- Ask the school to let you know of any changes in behaviour or academic performance. Ideally, a particular staff member, such as the class teacher, student wellbeing coordinator or year adviser, can provide a regular point of contact with the student. However, request that teachers don’t probe – some well-meaning staff members might misinterpret your child’s behaviour and unintentionally make them feel uncomfortable. For example, a teacher may ask if your child is okay when they’re happily sitting on their own.
- If you feel concerned about your child, ask the principal whether your child could see the school counsellor.
- Sometimes other children can be thoughtless in their comments. Talk to your child about how other children are reacting and encourage them to tell you if they have any concerns. You can raise these issues with teachers if needed.
- Ask a parent of one of your child’s friends to help you keep track of school notes, excursions, homework and other events. When life is disrupted at home, children may feel doubly hurt if they miss out on an event or activity at school because a note goes missing.
- Explore what special provisions might be available for exams or admission into university.
Sometimes I felt alone when my dad was sick. None of my friends really understood what we were going through at home, or that the problem could go on for so long.ADELE, AGED 16
Support services for schools
You may want to let the school know about services that provide school visits and information about cancer. For primary school and preschool children, Camp Quality offers a cancer education program, featuring puppets, to help young students learn about cancer in a safe, age-appropriate way. For more details, call 1300 662 267.
For more ideas about how your child’s school can help, see Cancer in the School Community: A guide for staff members, which explains how school staff can provide support when a student, parent or staff member has cancer.
Thinking the worst
When I was 14, Dad developed a bad cough. I remember sitting in my older sister’s lounge room on a Sunday afternoon. Dad was coughing. I knew they were going to tell us something because they were sitting down.
Dad just told us straight: “I have cancer.” Mum tried to sugar-coat it and said there were things they could do, but I was thinking the worst. It’s the great fear – death and dying – and I just thought, “He’s going to die.” I wanted to run. I wanted to do something. I thought if I could just do something, that would change it.
I joined Canteen the next day.
Right from the start, Dad said, “I might be the one with cancer, but you are going to be affected by it, so we will make decisions as a family. We’re going to fight this – one in, all in.”
IZZY, DAUGHTER, AGED 15
Podcast: Explaining Cancer to Kids
Prof Jane Turner AM, International Psycho-Oncology Society President Emeritus,The University of Queensland, QLD; Taylor Baker, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Principal Clinical and Health Psychologist, Head of Psychology, Hunter New England Mental Health, NSW; Camp Quality; Dr Lisa Cuddeford, Head of Department, WA Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Perth Children’s Hospital, WA; A/Prof Peter Downie, Head, Paediatric Haematology–Oncology and Director, Children’s Cancer Centre, Monash Children’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sarah Ellis, Clinical Psychologist, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Malia Emberson-Lafoa’i, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jane Gillard, Consumer; Mary McGowan OAM, International Childhood Cancer Advocate, VIC; Annette Polizois, Senior Social Worker, Women, Family and Emergency Care Team, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Rhondda Rytmeister, Clinical Psychologist, HeadWayHealth (formerly Snr Clinical Psychologist, The Cancer Centre for Children, Westmead, NSW); Nadine Street, Head of Social Work and Social Welfare, HNE Mental Health Service, NSW; Warren Summers, Online Counsellor, Canteen, NSW.
We would also like to thank the health professionals, consumers, organisations and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title, and we are grateful to the parents and young people whose real-life stories have added to the richness and relevance of this book.
We thank and acknowledge Dr Paula K. Rauch, MD, Founder and Director, Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, whose research and writing on helping parents talk to their children about cancer was used as source material for this book and has been adapted in several sections: pages 8–11, How children understand cancer; page 22, Answering key questions: Are you going to die?; page 26, Involving the school or preschool; pages 30–31, Hospital visits; and pages 36–37, Encouraging family time. We also thank the American Cancer Society for permission to use and adapt material on pages 8-11 from its book Cancer in Our Family: Helping children cope with a parent’s illness (2013); Macmillan Cancer Support for permission to use its book Talking to Children and Teenagers When an Adult Has Cancer (2013) as a source of information; Jessica Watt, Oncology Social Worker, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, for her contribution on page 20, When another child has cancer; and Diane McGeachy, Hobart Counselling Centre, for contributing material for page 37, Spending one-on-one time.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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