How to Talk to Kids about Cancer (And Why You Should)

I hate cancer. According to the US Cancer Center, the lifetime risk of developing cancer is 1:2 for Men and 1:3 for Women. That figure took my breath away. I started thinking about my family members, friends, extended circles and patients who have had cancer. Sorrowfully, I have quite the list.

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All of the cancer support groups focus on how to tell children their loved one has cancer, but I think a more proactive approach is best. Because of the prevalence of this disease, I believe children benefit from a basic understanding of cancer outside of the diagnosis of a friend or family member.

Here’s what we have shared with our 5 year old daughter:

Think about all the different sizes, varieties, and colors of flowers and plants. Our bodies are like gardens, beautifully designed and each unique. People are different shades, heights, weights, and styles too.  When we take care of our plants and give them soil, water, and sunlight, we get to enjoy beautiful gardens.  If we take care of our bodies by eating good food, exercising, and making good choices, we grow healthy and strong.

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Sometimes gardens get weeds, unwanted growths that steal the nutrients from the flowers.  People can have things that grow inside the body that are similar to weeds. This is called cancer, and it can make people very sick.

Weeds can be removed by hard work: using sprays, pulling them out, or using a weed-eater. It takes hard work to get rid of cancer too. Doctors give strong medications that are so tough it makes hair fall out. Cancer and these strong medicines can leave the body feeling tired and weak for a while, so people with cancer need lots of rest. The good news is that hair can grow back, and people can regain their strength. If the medicine works, the cancer will go away and won’t come back.  Sometimes gardens die because there are too many weeds, and sometimes people die because cancer grows and spreads too quickly. Many times, doctors treat the cancer and people live healthy and strong just like before.

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Weeds don’t spread from one garden to another, and you cannot catch cancer. It is not contagious or spreadable like a cold or a tummy bug. It is okay to give hugs, play with, and be with people with cancer. In fact, this makes people with cancer feel loved.

If you are taking care of your garden, it is less likely that you will get weeds. In the same way, taking care of our bodies makes it less likely to get cancer. The best way to do this to eat healthy, avoid alcohol and smoking, stay active and go for regular check-ups with the doctor.

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So Why am I Sharing This? 

A friend of a friend was dying from cancer earlier this year. They have a 5 year old daughter. I talked with S about how the little girl might be feeling, about what we could do for her, about life/death, and prayer. It taught her empathy and faith in real life.  My DH disagreed initially with this choice- fearing that it would make S worry unnecessarily particularly since it was not anyone we knew personally.  For some parents and children, this is not appropriate. However . . .

I believe that giving kids access to things that are probable before they are personal gives children skills to process the difficult things in life.

Not even three weeks later, a relative died from cancer.  Because S and I have an open dialogue about cancer, she already knew what it was, how it was treated, and what it might be like to have it. We had been praying for the little girl who lost her daddy to cancer so she knew she wasn’t alone.  She also recently participated in donating toys to charity shops that benefit cancer research which helped her to feel apart of the solution. It helped me too.

Gardening is dirty business, and life is messy. I like to teach my kids how to handle muddy situations and come out smiling.

Gardening is dirty business, and life is messy. How will my kids handle muddy situations in the future?

S transitioned from concrete information presented in a developmentally appropriate way (the garden analogy) through story books through mutual friends to something personal. She was able to attend the funeral of our family member with exceptional maturity and has an experience to draw on for the future episode of cancer.  Until we find a cure, there will be a next time.

There are plenty of opportunities to talk with children about cancer. Think about pink helmets at American Football games, 5k races, McMillan coffee mornings (UPunk Wig: a book about cancerK), fundraisers, and stories of people in your community. We first started talking about cancer when S was 3. Her grandpa “K-Pop” is bald. S was terrified she would lose her hair and this ended in a conversation about cancer. We have participated in various fundraisers as a family. The opportunities to get involved are everywhere, because cancer lurks in every community and population. Another great resource is the book called Punk Wig. This cancer fighting mom rocks a crazy wig in response to losing her hair during chemo therapy. I love her attitude and the book is so empowering.

Children who are exposed in developmentally appropriate ways to disability, death, crises, natural disasters, and interpersonal conflict are more adept and confident adults than those who are shielded from these situations. I want to give my kids opportunities to practice grief and loss while I am able to walk them through it. Plus, there is hope. We can teach our children how to take care of their bodies and reduce risks. Plus, who knows? We might be raising kids who will become social workers, healthcare professionals, counsellors, or researchers who will put an end to this cancer nonsense. I hate cancer. Anyone with me?lawn mowing

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