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How to Tell Your Kid You Have Cancer

The hardest part of cancer? That’s a loaded question, but telling my kid is at the top of that list. Lauren had just turned 10 when my husband and I found a lump in my breast. A few days later, an oncologist predicted that I had three months to live. “We have to tell her,” Gary said. I wanted another day before we had to rock her world. But eventually, I did it. If you have to do it too, here’s my advice:

1. Get your head together.

Before I talked to Lauren, I prayed. I cried. I stared at the wall. I froze pans of lasagna. I prayed some more. I meditated, binged on chocolate, and went for walks. I practiced saying the words out loud so I could get through what I needed to say. Lauren would take her cues from me, and I wanted to get it right. “Of course she wants to know about you,” I read in a pamphlet somewhere, “but she also needs to know what’s going to happen to her.” That sounded right, so I channeled my inner 10-year-old when I planned what to say.

2. Tell her cancer’s not contagious.

Kids are smart, especially mine. But I’m glad that pamphlet reminded me that kids probably don’t know they can’t “catch” cancer like a chest cold. I told Lauren we could still hug and touch and share milkshakes and she didn’t have to worry that she’d get cancer, too. Later, when I spoke to her classroom, I told them the same thing. I couldn’t be their volunteer art teacher anymore, but at least I wasn’t giving them a deadly disease.

3. Say: ‘Someone will take care of you.’

Lauren needed to know that with or without me, she was going to be all right. The truth is, I didn’t know how we were going to pull it off, but I did know that no matter what, Lauren would have clean clothes, hot meals, a roof over her head, and God at her side. I told her she’d still go to school and see her friends. As a family, we’d figure everything out, and she'd be okay.

4. Tell the truth. Mostly.

My first oncologist said I’d be dead in three months. The next guy was more optimistic — he gave me a 40 percent chance. When Lauren looked into my face and asked if I was going to die, I chose optimism. “It’s true that some people die from breast cancer,” I said, willing my voice to be steady. “But the doctor thinks he can cure me. And I believe I'm going to live.”

5. It’s okay to laugh.

I told Lauren the medicine I had to take had crazy side effects. “I’m going to lose all my hair,” I said. “Even down there.” We giggled because she thought it was funny, and watching her laugh made me laugh, too.

6. It’s okay to cry.

In fact, it’s a must. In my family, we cried together and we cried separately. All of us cried for the same reasons and all of us cried for different reasons. And that’s okay.

7. Like George Michael said, ‘You gotta have faith.’

In the United States, one in 20 children under the age of 16 loses a parent to death. It's incomprehensible that my kid could be one of them, but at some point, I made peace with that reality. For me, my faith in God helps, but faith can come in different packages. Tap into the outlet that works for you. During my own walk with cancer, I know that God is with me, the whole time, every step of the way, and that whether or not I physically survive cancer has nothing to do with winning or losing a battle.

Telling a child that a parent has cancer is brutal, but thinking it through in advance made it easier. And in my case, choosing optimism worked. Our conversation took place five years ago. Now, we talk about where we want to go on vacation, whose turn it is to take out the trash, and everything in between.


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