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What to Say When Your Child Has Cancer

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Published on July 6, 2020

How can you help your child understand their own cancer diagnosis? As a child and adolescent therapist with a focus on trauma-informed care, expert Dr. Sierra Wait shares tips for families facing childhood cancer. Watch now and learn how to approach the conversation and maintain a sense of normalcy.

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Transcript | What to Say When Your Child Has Cancer

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.

Ruth Fein:

Hi, if you're just joining us, thank you to our guest today, Dr. Sierra Wait, who's a mental health practitioner in Upstate New York, who deals primarily with children. And I'm Ruth Fein. I've been a guest on Patient Power a few times as an advocate. As a patient and an advocate. And this is a little bit of a different discussion today. We've been talking about tools that parents and others can use to help children through difficult times.

And I'd like to get to the toughest question, Dr. Wait, and that is, what about talking to a child about a cancer diagnosis when that cancer diagnosis is their own? Either they've been diagnosed with cancer or even if it's a sibling, which is close and another child. Give us your expertise on that.

Dr. Wait:

I think it's a really difficult conversation to have. I think the first conversation will take a lot of courage to bring it up. But having a conversation with them really, and answering the questions and not giving more information than they can really handle, or that they're really looking for, I think is important.

 Also, keeping a positive frame on it and letting them know that there's a lot of people who are there to support them. There's a lot of doctors and nurses who are working really hard to make sure that they stay healthy. Letting them know what they should expect; are there treatments, how frequently, do they have to spend time in the hospital? And really answering their questions about how life is going to change for them and what it's going to look like to the best of their knowledge. And as parents, be expected to have the conversation multiple times. Kids will probably ask questions again.

And I think another thing that's important, is to have them live their "normal life" as much as possible. So still have play dates if they can. I don't know if schooling will change, but allow them to continue to go to school. It might be a conversation with teachers, or their friend's parents and their friends about if there are changes that are going to go on.

It's really specific to the child. I think the diagnosis, the parents, the family. I imagine they have a pretty solid treatment team. They probably have some mental health professionals on their treatment team, reaching out to them for support.

But really, I think the big things that are important across diagnoses and people, is answering the questions that they ask, keeping it as positive as possible and letting them know that there are people working really hard to keep them healthy and safe, and letting them know that it's still their job to be a kid and have fun when possible.

Ruth Fein:

Yeah. Great advice. While you were talking, I thought about something and if the diagnosis is a sibling, then you have a child in a position that they have to deal with someone very close to them, they are faced with the trauma of that and the potential loss. Loss, not just being loss of life, but loss of all kinds of things. At the same time, is they're almost stepping into a caretaker position in a way.

Dr. Wait:

I think one thing that I see more than the kids stepping into a caretaker role, is I see them having a lot of mixed feelings about their sibling's diagnosis. So their sibling gets a lot more attention from the parents and maybe they feel mad because they have a lot of attention, but they also understand that, well it's because they have a medical condition and they need help and they're sick.

And so I think the sibling does go through a lot of mixed emotions, that maybe the parents are just more short tempered because they're more irritable, because they're really stressed and they're worried about the child who is sick. And so I think that's also a difficult role to be in, because of all of the mixed emotions that they can go through.

And so also allowing that child to have a space to really explore their emotions, and process their emotions about their sibling's diagnosis, is also really important, because it does impact them in a very complicated way.

Ruth Fein:

What else would you say to a parent or even a grandparent? One of the things that I did think about is, I don't know how much parents feel comfortable reaching out to other professionals that they come in contact with. So obviously you have a care team, but then what about the child who then goes to a dentist or an audiologist because radiation damaged their hearing or all kinds of paraprofessionals and the kinds of people that they come into contact, who, should they know? Should they not know? Is it helpful for everyone to be aware, so that they might have some skills and some reason to speak differently or address the child?

Dr. Wait:

Yeah. I think that's a good question. I really think it depends on the person and their role, right? If it's their piano teacher, maybe they don't need to know. If it's their primary care doctor, of course they need to know. And so I think it really depends on who that person is, because I think keeping some people out of the loop in a sense, also gives that child that sense of normalcy, so they're not treated differently.

Ruth Fein:

Yeah.

Dr. Wait:

And so I think that's a really hard conversation and a hard thing to figure out, who is it to know and who isn't? As a teacher, it would probably be important if the kid's going to be missing school or if they're going to be sick or tired. So, yeah, that's a difficult conversation and it's a difficult thing to figure out.

I do think that reaching out for supports and figure out how to make those decisions can be really helpful, whether that's a therapist, or whether that's family and friends. I think COVID has shown us all how important our social supports really are. And so reaching out to those people in your support network, when you're trying to figure out those things and having those conversations and really looking at it from both sides, and at the end of the day, what's in the best interest of the child. If that's at the forefront of your mind, I don't think you can go wrong.

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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