Telling children about parents' cancer

Telling children about parents' cancer
Monday, Dec 05, 2011
The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network

Yoshiko Sugihara, a color therapist, was shocked to learn she had breast cancer in autumn 2007 and was concerned about how she would explain the illness to her only daughter, Moeka, who was only 5 years old at the time.

Young children are often bewildered to learn a parent has cancer and what and how a child should be told is something every stricken parent struggles with. Experts point out the importance of being honest to ease anxiety and help reduce negative emotions. Speaking with someone who has dealt with this firsthand is an instructive experience.

"I was surprised at my child's awareness and sensitivity. I didn't tell her about my cancer, but she had already noticed it," said Sugihara, 50.

When she talked with her husband about how to tell Moeka about the disease, she was surprised by a birthday card Moeka gave her. Two round breasts were drawn on the front of the card. Moeka had picked up on the fact something was wrong with her parents, noticing the strange atmosphere and overhearing conversations.

Immediately after that, she told Moeka she had cancer, and if her right breast were removed, she would be able to take a bath with Moeka. She said Moeka silently listened to her story.

Many parents worry about whether they should inform their children of the disease, out of fear children would be concerned about the disease or they would not be able to understand it.

Kaori Osawa, representative of Hope Tree, a group supporting children with parents who have cancer, and a medical social worker at Tokyo Kyosai Hospital in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, stresses the importance of telling children the truth.

"Even if parents hide the cancer, most children notice changes and may imagine the worst. Some children may mistakenly think their parent has cancer because they were bad children," Osawa said. 

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