living a well tended life... at any age

i can’t/she can: talking with children about cancer

I know – heavy stuff for a Monday morning.

When I decided to launch this new series last month, my goal was – and is – to not only introduce you to great bloggers, authors and “creatives”, but to impart some meaningful information that you would not otherwise find here at D D and D.

I feel truly blessed, thanks to the community that this blog has created for me, to have met people who are experts in so many different walks of life. I find what they do fascinating, as it is often so different from my own experiences – both personally and professionally.

Hollye Jacobs is JUST such a person. Hollye started her blog, The Silver Pen, as a way to discuss her journey with breast cancer – using great style and plenty of humor. Her blog is unique in that it also calls on her professional experience as a Pediatric and Adult Palliative Care Nurse and Social Worker, with graduate degrees in Bioethics and Child Development (I know, right? And she’s gorgeous too!).

hollye jacobs

photo credit: Elizabeth Messina

Hollye and I had been discussing working together, and I asked her to write about how to talk to children about a serious illness like cancer. In the last few years we’ve experienced friends’ battles with illnesses, as well as the deaths of several friends’ parents. As we are getting older we know that this will, sadly, become more the norm with Noah than it was with Chelsea and Conor, and we’ve struggled with the language to use with our little guy.

I was grateful for Hollye’s advice, which I’m so pleased to share with you all today:

Having to tell children about a breast cancer diagnosis is rotten. I mean, really, as if having breast cancer isn’t hard enough. However (based on my professional experience as a nurse and my personal experience as a patient) I know that including children in the process – from the time of a diagnosis – is the most important thing that we adults can do for them.

Children deserve open lines of truthful communication. Truthfulness is the best (and only!) way to establish and maintain a bond of trust, with everyone, but especially with children. Discussing illness honestly and openly will teach children that parents are trustworthy and that honesty is a core family value.

As much as I wish that my experience only happened to me and that I could have shielded my husband and children from the pain, the reality is that cancer happens within the ecosystem of family, friends and community. It just does. The Silver Lining is that there are indeed tools to help parents talk with children.

Here are some practical suggestions for how and when to talk with children:

1. Talk with them at the time of the diagnosis.
2. Talk frequently and briefly, letting their questions guide you.
3. Base conversation on the child’s age and sense of understanding.
4. Begin with the basics.
5. Practice what you are going to say.
6. Consider having another adult present.
7. Use clear, specific words that the child can understand.
8. Be honest. If you don’t know the answer, say so, but reassure them you’ll find out.
9. Look for clues they may be confused, angry, sad or withdrawn.
10. Get support. Inform your child’s teachers/counselors/coaches.

When talking with children, it is helpful to become familiar with the typical beliefs that children hold about a cancer diagnosis and how to respond to these beliefs:

1. Children often feel guilty (often silently) because they think they caused cancer in the family – by misbehaving, thinking angry thoughts, etc. Reassure them that no one is to blame for the cancer.
2. Cancer isn’t contagious, but children may think it is. Let them know that this isn’t an illness like a cold or the flu.
3. When a parent is ill, children may feel anxious about being abandoned. They need to know they will always be taken care of.
4. Children may equate cancer with death, even if the prognosis is good. Be honest about what you know. Do not make false promises , bu you can stress that doctors and scientist are working hard to treat the illness.

While we cannot protect all of the world’s children from the big and little “lumps” (pun intended) of life, the manner in which the experience is handled lays the foundation for how children will handle the inevitable future “lumps” in the road.

The Silver Lining is that children are wonderfully resilient and can survive a family’s cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery. My husband and I had two choices about how we were going to handle this wretched diagnosis: from a position of fear or from one of love, from a place of truth or denial.

We chose love and truth. As a result, our children mirrored our words, actions and emotions. It was emotional. It was honest. It was hard, but we were all in it together.

I couldn’t love this more. And though (thankfully) we have not faced this situation in our own family, it is so helpful to have the words to use to explain similar situations to Noah. Hollye’s commitment to honest, straight talk – enveloped in love, support and reassurance – really resonates with me as a parent. I have such respect and admiration for this woman.

You can read more about Hollye’s experience – including practical and inspiring tips from the time of diagnosis through treatment, and into life after breast cancer – at her fabulous blog, The Silver Pen.

I would really love to hear your thoughts on this – especially if you’ve been in a similar situation in your own family. Is there anything you would add to Hollye’s advice?


  1. Evey on May 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I just went through a complete hysterectomy after finding a large tumor on my right ovary and having all the ovarian cancer symptoms one could have. It was cancer. Went through a round of chemo, and a month ago had the surgery.
    It has been a tough road to recovery as I have RA and am immuno-compromised. Dealing with chronic illness is tough enough, my kids have had to deal with a lot. Lately, I find my youngest weeping silently in her room, often crying and telling me she’s scared I will die. It has been difficult dealing with their fears and my own fears, as well. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Here’s to beating cancer!!!! 🙂


    • sherisilver on May 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      Oh my Evey – I don’t know what to say. Thank you so much for sharing this here. I can’t imagine what this must be like for you, and I hope for nothing but good news going forward. Your children are so lucky to have such a strong, positive mommy! xoxoxo

  2. Christa the BabbyMama on May 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    I’ll be honest, I had to skim this one. Having to talk to my daughter (and someday my son) about something like this is practically my nightmare. I’m glad the information is out there, though, if that nightmare ever comes true.

    • sherisilver on May 6, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      I appreciate your honesty Christa – I struggled with it myself….

  3. Rebecca on May 7, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Oh this is such incredibly good information. Not just for breast cancer. I have one friend who has stage three colon cancer and another mother I know has stage 4 brain cancer. My own sister is currently being treated for breast cancer and my mother just passed away this last november from ALS. I think the hardest questions came from my youngest about my mom. He just couldn’t understand why the doctors couldn’t fix Nana, why they couldn’t operate and “cut it out.” I wish I had been ready for those hard questions when I talked to the boys about these things. Thanks so for sharing. Perhaps I can share this post on my blog in October during Breast Cancer Awareness month. xxoo

    • sherisilver on May 7, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      I think Hollye would love that – thanks so much for sharing, Rebecca. xo

  4. allison carmen on May 9, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Sheri, I think this post will help a lot people. thanks, Allison

    • sherisilver on May 9, 2013 at 10:07 pm

      I hope so Allison – Hollye is a treasure.

Leave a Comment