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Communicating Cancer to Adult Children

Communicating Cancer to Adult Children
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Published on April 22, 2019

carrie-john-kateSaturday, April 5, 2014, was a day filled with the promise of spring, but for me, the day was heavy with dread. My husband had said, “It’s time,” and so I had asked my son if he could stop by for a visit. 

I have three amazing adult children. My oldest child Kate was 31 when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. My son John and daughter-in-law Carrie were 28. Resources abound on how to talk to young children about cancer, but sources are limited when it comes to telling adult children about a cancer diagnosis. 

My children knew that I’d been having tests in regard to some medical issues. But none of us expected a cancer diagnosis, especially not a cancer we had never heard of! The definitive news came during a phone call on April 1, and I had waited four days to share the news with three of the people most dear to me. 

My son and I sat down together, and I began to tell him about my diagnosis. I don’t remember the words I used, but I do remember that, although I tried so hard to be strong, the tears began to flow. I looked down and saw that my son had reached over to cover my hands with his. In a quick reversal of roles, he was reaching out to comfort me. 

I managed to convey the details of the disease along with what I hoped was a good measure of hope and optimism. I spoke of the research that held such promise and I assured him that we would seek the best doctors and treatments. 

Then, it was time to call my daughter Kate. She was living in Canada, and the time zone difference made it possible for me to talk with her at the same time I had spoken with her brother. Somehow, that seemed the fair way to share the bad news! Kate remembers finding a quiet place to take the call. Because we were in the habit of emailing daily, she knew from the previous mention of tests and the tone of my emails that trouble was on the horizon.  

How I dreaded saying the word “cancer” to Kate! The distance between us would not allow for even a quick hug of reassurance. Kate had two close friends who had lost their moms to cancer, and I knew the impact of the word would hit hard. We both choked back tears during that call, but again, I offered the assurance of ground-breaking research and new treatments and, like her brother, Kate assured me of her support and prayers. We would be attending her graduate school graduation later that month and would have time to sort through the implications of the diagnosis then. 

Fast-forward to a beautiful fall day in late October. John, Carrie and Kate were cleaning our house from top to bottom in preparation for my stem cell transplant. We had been warned of the importance of coming home to a clean, sanitized home in order to avoid infection. Every nook and cranny was subject to dusting, scrubbing or vacuuming. We had decided that when I returned home, I would use our guest room to rest and recover, so Carrie spent the day painting the room a beautiful, uplifting shade of coral. My heart was full that evening as we gathered around our kitchen table to share a meal. I felt such love for and pride in these young people whom I was blessed to call my children! 

Their support continued. Kate had moved home from Canada in order to be with me during my transplant so that my husband Marc could keep our business on track. She continued to be a big part of my care team, driving me to appointments and taking detailed notes. John and Carrie offered support and encouragement through visits, notes, calls, and thoughtful gifts. 

paula-familyIt’s been five years now, and our family has adjusted to a new “normal.” I’m doing well on maintenance treatment but, with frequent appointments and tests, we can’t completely ignore the fact that I have what is still considered an incurable cancer. Where do we go from here now that the initial crisis is behind us? 

Here are some suggestions for communicating with and involving adult children, not only at diagnosis, but beyond.

1. Be honest. Assure your children that you will keep them updated and informed. Otherwise, they may assume the worst or lose confidence in the information you share with them. 

2. Let them help! Most adult children want to be involved. If your child drives you to an appointment, invite him or her to sit in and take notes. Adult children who live far away can be reminded of how much it means to receive their encouraging notes and calls. 

3. If your child is married, include his or her spouse. I’m so grateful for the love and kindness Carrie has shown to me and all our family. 

4. Use your diagnosis as a way to teach your children how to navigate a medical crisis. By now, I hope my children have learned the importance of second opinions, specialists, and self-advocacy. 

5. As parents, we have the opportunity to teach our adult children through our example. We can show them how to persevere when obstacles seem overwhelming. We can show them the importance of hope. 

6. A cancer diagnosis is traumatic! While it’s fine to confide in your children, don’t lean on them as your sole source of emotional support. I have found professional counseling to be very beneficial in addressing my anxiety, which gives me more emotional energy to be present for those I love. 

7. Don’t give cancer a front row seat at your family activities. Be sure to share important information and updates, but don’t let cancer be the focus of your time together. My most treasured family times are the ones in which the word “myeloma” isn’t even mentioned. 

8. Remember that your adult children have full, active lives. Continue to encourage them in their work, hobbies and relationships. 

These suggestions may not be relevant for every patient. Sometimes more help is required from adult children. Approach those situations with love and respect and consider seeking outside sources to prevent the full responsibility from falling on children. Not all families are defined by harmonious relationships. In those cases, is it possible to reach out, make amends, and start anew? 

A cancer diagnosis brings new meaning to the relationship between a parent and adult children. An open, honest conversation laced with love invites children in and allows them to express their love, concern, and even their fear and worry. While communicating a cancer diagnosis to an adult child is one of the most difficult tasks a patient faces, it can be a stepping stone toward a deep and close relationship.

-Paula K. Waller

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.


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