Column: Helping My Children Grow Strong Through My Cancer

What is the best way to handle a cancer diagnosis as a parent? While there may be no definitive answer, Wendy S. Harpham weighs in.
BY Wendy S. Harpham, M.D.
PUBLISHED September 26, 2016
I recently came across an opinion piece on curetoday.com that rattled me like no other. Let me state up front my fervent belief that there is no single “right” way to raise children through a parent’s cancer.  And parents must find the best approach for their family — something only they can determine. That said, I feel compelled to write about the benefits of telling children the truth even when it hurts.

In Mom’s Cancer Diagnosis: Tips for Families with Young Children, the author shared her belief that not always telling the truth was essential to achieving her ultimate goal: protecting her three daughters from the stress and sadness of her cancer. As I was reading, the author’s determination, resilience and love for her family poured out of my computer screen. Her desire to shield her children reminded me of my own Momma-bear instincts to protect my children, who were only 1, 3 and 5 years old when I was diagnosed.

I suppressed those instincts, with hope of achieving my overriding mission: to help my children grow up into healthy and happy adults, whatever happened to me. For me, the best way to serve that mission through the challenges of my survivorship was by establishing open communication based on a bond of trust.

My decision to always tell the truth was supported by child-life studies showing that parents can’t keep children from observing the changes at home and drawing conclusions. The truth couched in love and hope empowered me to shape their perception of reality in life-enhancing ways. Open communication meant I could guide them to healthy ways of dealing with life’s hardships and uncertainty, and they could always come to me with their questions and concerns. My illness offered me a platform to teach them in the most powerful ways the values and skills I’d want to teach them if I’d never been sick.

That decision to always tell the truth led to something almost magical: Parenting became easier. And, unexpectedly, my search for words to help my children led to life-enhancing insights and mantras that helped me as a patient. 

Perhaps the most convincing argument for telling the truth comes from my children. As described in Conversation 2008, my children have insisted that what helped them most was my telling the truth. They never worried that we were hiding something from them. Growing up in a home where nothing in the world was too scary or awful to talk about or deal with together gave them an outlook on life built on confidence, resilience and hopefulness.

My 10 tips are premised on the promise to your children that you’ll always tell the truth:

1. Use age-appropriate language.
2. Tell them enough — not everything.
3. Prepare them for expected changes in the coming weeks.

Reassure them…

4. You are receiving excellent medical care.
5. You will always try your best to get better.
6. You will help them deal with whatever happens.
7. Their needs and hopes remain as important as ever.

Since children’s candid reactions to unwanted news are healing for them, but painful to witness…

8. Provide children a safe place to express whatever they are feeling.
9. Find a safe place away from the children to share your feelings about their pain.
10. Avoid pity.

It is now 25 years since my diagnosis. My cancer encouraged my family to know both the fragility and the hopes of life, and with that knowledge to live most fully.

The greatest gift we can give our children is not protection from the world, but the confidence and tools to cope and grow with all life has to offer. The truth sets us free, even when it hurts.
Wendy S. Harpham, M.D., is a 25-year survivor of multiple recurrences of lymphoma and the author of When a Parent has Cancer. A Guide to Caring for Your Children (HarperCollins), which received a 2006 Book of the Year Award from the American Journal of Nursing. A profile of Wendy and her ongoing work in behalf of long-term survivors appeared in Heal magazine. Harpham is a member of CURE’s advisory board.
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