Medical Q&As

Chemotherapy - telling the children?

A dear friend has been just been diagnosed with lung cancer and is due to start chemotherapy in the next week or so. Although hopeful that the cancer may be brought under control, she is unsure as to how much information to impart to her children (aged 14 and 8) about her illness. Their dad passed away suddenly two years ago. Appreciate some advice.

This is a heart-rending dilemma and I am sure that your friend is just as concerned about talking to her children about her condition as she is about the imminent challenge of undergoing chemotherapy. The situation is even more poignant and difficult because of the death of the childrenís father two years ago. It is quite likely that the children know more than you think about their motherís health. Children do pick up messages without a subject being directly addressed in their presence. They notice changes in peopleís behaviour and attitudes. They are not unaware of hospital visits and other disruptions in the everyday life of the family. They may already be going through a process of coming to terms with their motherís health difficulties. Therefore I repeat the point, they may already know more than you think. If they should ask questions those questions should be addressed and not swept aside. Straight honest answers to their questions will help them to cope. Above all else; donít lie to them. The difficulty with telling an untruth is that it cannot be untold and once the real truth is established the child may feel very let down with serious repercussions for their sense of trust in the adults that surround them. When addressing their questions simply answer the question being asked and donít embark on a mini lecture. Give them time to assimilate the information they have been given. This will also allow them time to reconsider the issue and possibly come back with supplementary questions. There is a significant age gap between the two children, which means that they will have differing levels of understanding in relation to their motherís health. This needs to be addressed in the answers they are given. It is also important to acknowledge them as two individuals. I would also suggest that people adopt a certain lightness of tone and not be too sombre when discussing these matters. Reasonably upbeat factual answers will help them to cope.