Do I tell my school-age children that I could die?

Most people who are diagnosed with cancer worry about dying. When your child hears about your illness, he may also start worrying about your chances of dying. Should you talk with him about it?

While you decide whether or not to take that step, think about these issues:

  • If your doctor is hopeful about your chances of getting better, you don’t need to tell your children that you could die.
  • With all of the research that’s being done, and the new treatments that are available, there’s a chance that your type of cancer may be cured one day.

What to say: 

When talking with children, give them as much information about your disease as you think they can handle or understand. If your doctors feel that everything will turn out all right, let your children know. You might say, for example, “My doctors think that I’m going to be OK. They have very good ways to treat my cancer, and I’m going to take good care of myself.”

If you need to tell your children that you might die, though, take time to think through what you want to say and the best way to do it. Try to set up a support system in advance: Tell older family members and close friends the date that you’ll be having this talk with your children. Ask if they can be on hand in case your children need extra comfort, or want to speak with someone else afterwards.

If your chances of surviving cancer aren’t good, don’t lie to your school-age children – but don’t let them think that your death will happen soon if it’s not going to, either. You could say something like, “The doctors are worried about me. Sometimes people with my type of cancer die. I’m not dying now, but if things change and get worse, I’ll tell you.”

  • Tell your children that you’ll answer any questions they may have. If you don’t have the information that they want, let them know that you’ll try to find someone who knows.
  • Praise them for being able to ask hard questions. They may feel sad about asking, but they may also feel relieved that you’re able to have this kind of talk with them.
  • Make sure they know that you won’t keep important information from them.
  • Be honest, so that they can feel comfortable telling you about their fears or worries.

Common reactions

When talking with children about your chance of dying, keep in mind:

  • School-age children may clearly understand that cancer can lead to death.
  • Your children will probably feel relieved to be able to talk about your illness with you or another adult.

References

American Cancer Society. (2005). Helping children when a family member has cancerwww.cancer.org

Blum, D. CancerCare Connect. (2005) Helping children when a family member has cancer. Retrieved 6/30/08 from www.cancercare.org

Harpham, W. (1997). When a parent has cancer: a guide to caring for your children. New York: HarperCollins

National Cancer Institute (n.d.) When someone in your family has cancer. Retrieved 7/1/08 from www.cancer.gov