Experts unanimously say discussing your cancer diagnosis with your kids is a necessity, but knowing you have to do it and knowing how to do it are two different things entirely. It won’t be easy, but you can have some expert advice from people who have already been there.
To start with, kids are almost always going to base their emotional response on how you express yourself in the talk, so try to process it first, then have the talk. Always come up with a plan beforehand of what you want to say, how you want to say it, and have the answers to questions they might have before you talk with them. Their age is going to play a substantial role in the details of the talk, so be sure to tailor it to what they can understand and what their concerns are going to be.
When talking to kids younger than 12, who might not understand the full nature of what is happening, there are a few specific details that should be discussed. You should tell them the name of cancer and which part of the body it’s in. They need to know (in the most general sense) how it will be treated, and how their own lives will be affected. Encourage them to ask questions if they have any. When it isn’t discussed, children often will blame themselves for something that’s happening, so make sure to let them know that it’s not their fault. Another common response is for them to think it’s contagious, that they or their other parent might catch it too. Let them know that you can’t catch cancer like a cold or flu (it’s okay to hug or kiss the person with cancer). Even though the sick parent may not have as much time with them, the children are loved and will be taken care of while the parent is sick.
Discussing it with teenagers is a different matter entirely. They may have already realized something is happening from the increase in private discussions, phone calls, or secret trips to the hospital. Use your best judgment based on their specific personality and aptitude, but talking to them in adult terms can help them understand a lot more of the situation than you might think. Assure them what they’ve seen about cancer on TV, online, and talking with their friends might not be true and have trustworthy resources they can look at to help make sure they don’t come across misconceptions or irrelevant information on their own.
You don’t have to share everything, but the most important thing is, to be honest with them. Kids will assume the worst if you don’t share, and it’s only a matter of time before they realize something is happening.