Lifeline: Help With a Tough Conversation


Lifeline: Help with a tough conversation
Sunday, October 29, 2006

If you’re a parent who’s been diagnosed with cancer, one of the toughest things you’ll face is figuring out how to help your kids cope with your unsettling news.

The first thing you should NOT do is rush straight home and blurt it all out. Instead, let a few days or a week pass before you have your sit-down talk.

“This gives you time to think through what you’re going to say to your children, to anticipate their questions and how you might answer them,” said author Peter van Dernoot, whose “Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer: A Guide for Parents and Families, Second Edition” (Hatherleigh Press, $15.95) was just released to coincide with October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Control is key.

Most importantly, this self-imposed grace period will allow you to get your emotions under control so that you can talk to your children in well-modulated tones and without breaking down. “If Mom says, ‘I’m going to be okay and we’re going to fight this,’ but she’s wringing her hands and crying, it’s a mixed message,” van Dernoot said.

Be ready in case your child asks, “Are you going to die?”

Be honest.

You need to be honest and try to focus on the positive as much as possible. “If you say, ‘I’m not going to die,’ and, unfortunately, a couple of years later, the parent does die, the surviving parent will be reminded by the child, ‘You lied to me,'” said van Dernoot, whose late wife was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at 45, when the couple’s children were 11 and 15.

Try van Dernoot’s suggested approach with your kids: “We’re going to be talking to the very best doctors and oncologists we can find and we’ll do everything we can to try to beat this cancer. Survival rates are extraordinarily high, now, because of new medications and treatments.”

Don’t forget this part: “We will be very honest with you and we will talk to you. As we know new things, we’ll let you know, also.”

— Meg Nugent