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Talking to children about the ‘C’ word: Cancer
By Emma Clark.
I want to start, first and foremost, by saying there are no right or wrong answers to this puzzling question.
Parents or guardians know their children best, and on that basis, it is their decision whether to allow their children to have maximum, or minimum, exposure to the illness and its effects as they see fit. The following is only an articulation of how I feel on the matter, based on my own experience. To make this rather sad topic more tolerable, I’ve opted to focus less on the specifics, and more on general advice for those dealing with the struggles of cancer more generally, and the involvement of children in this process.
For some context: My name is Emma, I am a twenty-two, nearly twenty-three-year-old Master’s student, and I lost my dad to kidney cancer when I was twelve. My dad was diagnosed in August 2007, and by the October of the following year, he had passed away. I wanted to write this post for one particular reason: my experience, though undoubtedly traumatic, is not in vain if I can help others who find themselves in a situation similar to my own. This guidance, if you can call it that, is applicable not just to kidney cancer, though a lot of my experience and advise (for want of a better word), is rather specific.
1: Too involve, or not to involve.
As I have grown up, I have felt that I did not really understand my dad’s illness, how it progressed, and its symptoms more generally. This is a reflection of the fact that both my sister and I were very young when my dad was diagnosed; this does not take away from the pain it has caused as I have gotten older. I have felt guilt in a way I cannot describe for failing to spot his symptoms; failing to understand how his illness could progress and develop in the manner it did. This is a reflection of kidney cancer more generally. The symptoms seem disparate and often unrelated not just to cancer, but any illness generally: lower back pain, blood in the urine, fatigue, loss of appetite, and so forth.
If you find yourself in the position where you are either suffering from kidney cancer, or in a relationship with someone who does, and children figure into the relationship, consider the following: how involved do I want the children to be? I ask that for a number of reasons. Involving children has the potential to cause hysteria and upset; I cannot tell you the pain I experienced when seeing my Dad in a hospital bed. However, as I have gotten older, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty, that I am glad I saw him in this state. Though I do not wish to undermine the pain it caused at the time and in my grieving (which is a life-long process, I will be honest in saying), I developed a new understanding of my dad and who he was. He let down a number of barriers; he no longer put on this macho-man front. He was no longer distant and thinking solely about work. He had nowhere to be. His role was simply to be a father to both myself and my sister, and husband to my mum. The benefits of this arrangement came from the fact that, aside from the frequent hospital visits, the occasional Saturday mornings where I would wake up, alone, as my dad had been rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night, my routine stayed monotonous. My mum, and I thank her for this, did not allow my life to become consumed by his illness. I went to school, I played sports, I danced. This normality could be seen as a stark contrast to what my dad was experiencing, but it kept life lighter, more joyful, for my sister and I.
Saying that, there are other aspects of his illness that I still find myself questioning. Why did no one spot it earlier? Why did it take so long for him to get diagnosed? Why did I ONLY realise the severity of it when I was told, by a nurse, that he was expected to die the next day? These are questions that, as I have gotten older, I find myself more intrigued by, and I want to know more. I am older; I can cope better.
To what extent you involve children in this process is entirely up to you. If I can say one thing, it is this: Children are not as unaware, or as naïve as you think. If someone is in pain, children will spot it. The awareness and honesty children possess is something rather fascinating. Though young children cannot fully comprehend illness, they can understand when someone is in pain. To break to a young child that their relative is very ill is something I wish to never experience, though I have been at the other end. It is worth purchasing books that assist in this process, I know my mum did in order to tell my sister and I. Do it in a way so as the severity of the situation is not masked, but in a relaxed environment. Maybe buy an ice cream, or a sweet they enjoy? There is an art to mastering this process, and whether it goes the way you want it to can never be guaranteed. It is a situation which risks heightened emotions, untoward behaviour, anger, and sadness. Whilst cancer is painful, the process of someone dealing with the illness can be dealt with in a manner beneficial to everyone. Be calm and collected to the best of your abilities. Tell them, depending on their age, what the situation at hand is. Explain that there will be good days and bad days in equal measure.
When my mum told my sister and I, I remember feeling nothing but shock. I had known my dad was ill, but not to the extent that it was cancer. But then again, I did not know what cancer was. I knew only it was serious based on the fact my mum broke down and would not stop crying. That memory has stayed with me ever since, and it will do for all children who face being told a relative has an illness, cancer or otherwise. I don’t wish to say there is a right and wrong way to approach this situation, because there isn’t. Know that you are strong and capable of anything, and that any time you need support, your support network is broader than you think. Reach out; help is always there.