Moves in Medicine: Talking to kids about parent's cancer

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A cancer diagnosis can be traumatic for anyone to hear, but for a child to hear it about their parents, it can be even worse.

Carla Rake of Glenside, Pa. was diagnosed with melanoma in 2013.

"I thought I would just have surgery at the dermatologist office and that would be it. Skin cancer, they just cut it out, you move on? Well, that wasn't the case," she said.

Still reeling from the diagnosis, she thought about her two young kids, ages 8 and 10 at the time.

"We talked about things just as they were happening, didn't try to look too much into the future because we weren't sure what was going to happen at the time," she said.

Dr. Paula Finestone is a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. She says Carla's approach was a good one.

"I also think it's a conversation that a patient should expect to have in little pieces over a longer period of time," said Finestone.

It's important to keep in mind the child's age. For younger kids, use words they know.

"Instead of using a term like "medical oncologist," we advise people to use the word doctor. And instead of saying something like "chemotherapy" we might use the word "medicine" just so it's in a way that children can understand," said social worker Anjali Albanese.

Also, prepare them for physical changes.

"It's important to prepare them for things like: there may be hair loss, you might notice that the person seems more tired, there might be some nausea and vomiting that's happening, they may not have the same level of energy as they did before," Albanese said.

The biggest takeaway: try to live in the moment.

"Life's happening today. And I also say: if you're focused on the past or the future, something good might be happening today. And you're missing out on what's happening today," Finestone said.
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