When a parent has cancer: Helping a child understand, and cope
April 4, 2016 | by City of Hope
When his mother’s cervical cancer went into remission, 9-year-old Edgar Anthony de la Cueva spread the news to everyone. “My mom beat cancer,” he boasted to his friends, his teacher and his entire class.
But the celebration soon turned bittersweet when the family learned that his father, 32-year-old Edgar Sr., had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Edgar Anthony and his 5-year-old sister Meea, had been so happy, and now this sadness. How could they talk about it? They chose not to, keeping their father’s cancer their shared “secret.”
“I think they felt disappointed to now have their dad, the man of the house, sick,” said the children’s mother, Myrella Rico.
In the hospital for a bone marrow transplant in December, Edgar Sr. and his family found themselves supported by City of Hope’s integrated web of services offered under the umbrella of the Department of Supportive Care Medicine.
Tiffany Yang, M.S., C.C.L.S, a child life specialist with the department, provides age-appropriate education for children of adult cancer patients, to help children understand the disease and its treatment. Using a model of a cutaway bone exposing the marrow, she gave Edgar Anthony and Meea a visual of what was happening inside their dad’s body.
“I explained how we’re getting rid of the cancer cells, how we’re destroying his bone marrow that doesn’t work properly and how we’re replacing it with their uncle’s healthy bone marrow,” Yang said. “And how we’re hoping their dad grows their uncle’s healthy bone marrow.”
Yang, who also teaches coping skills to children, was able to get Edgar Anthony to open up about his feelings. She suggested that sharing would enable others to support him and his sister through their dad’s cancer.
The all-encompassing, proactive nature of support at City of Hope is different from what the family experienced with their mother’s care at another hospital. “It’s never-ending, the things they bring forward to encourage and help you here,” said Myrella. “We feel blessed that we’re in a good place where we feel that everything’s going to be OK.”
City of Hope’s Department of Supportive Care Medicine is considered the gold standard in cancer care, recognized by the National Cancer Institute with a sizable grant to train other health care organizations in the model.
Helping a child understand, and cope, with a family member’s cancer diagnosis is a process that often begins with an honest conversation. While it is important to consider the developmental age of your child – some children may be too young to verbalize questions, or understand certain concepts, for instance – for older children and teenagers, here are several points that may help, from the National Cancer Institute.
What children of all ages need to know about cancer:
- Nothing your child did, thought, or said caused you to get cancer.
- Just because you have cancer doesn't mean you'll die from it. In fact, many people live with cancer for a long time.
- Your child can't make you well. But there are ways he or she can make you feel better.
- Scientists are finding many new ways to treat cancer.
About living with cancer in the family:
- Your child is not alone. Other children have parents who have cancer.
- It's OK to be upset, angry or scared.
- Your child can't do anything to change the fact that you have cancer.
- Family members may act differently because they're worried about you.
- You will make sure that your children are taken care of, no matter what happens to you.
About what they can do to help:
- They can help you by doing nice things like washing dishes or drawing you a picture.
- They should still go to school and take part in sports and other fun activities.
- They can talk to other adults for support such as teachers, family members, and religious or spiritual leaders.
Explore the tips, tools and resources at Living with Cancer to make full use of the caring community you'll find at City of Hope. Find more resources to help children and teens understand and cope with a family member’s cancer diagnosis at www.cancer.gov.
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