It was around 10 o’clock in the morning when I got into my cabin to get ready to attend to my patients. Just then, my phone rang. It was a call from Boniphace, my patient who’s battling with lung cancer.
I picked the call only to realise that it was his 12-year-old son, Ben, that had made the call. And that worried me thinking that something might have probably happened to his father.
“Is everything okay with your dad? And where is he?” I anxiously asked Ben.
“Doctor don’t worry, dad is doing fine. I have decided to give you a call because I’m concerned about my father’s condition,” he said.
“And what is that?” I asked him and took a deep breath as a sigh of relief that Boniphace was fine.
“I really want to know what is behind my father’s illness. He is turning weaker with time, and the worst part of it is that the medication is taking away his hair. I know something is wrong with him, but when I ask my parents they tell me that everything is fine and he will be all better soon,” he informs.
Breaking the cancer news
Hearing that your loved one is diagnosed with cancer is very hard to take. It can trigger a lot of emotional trauma to both a patient and people around him or her. And that’s why, like what Boniphace did, some parents don’t want to break the cancer news to their children I understand.
However, explaining a cancer diagnosis to children or teenagers can feel difficult and overwhelming, but talking sensitively and honestly about cancer can reassure them during a time of uncertainty and change.
Giving children the chance to ask about cancer and express their feelings will help them understand.
What and how much you tell children will depend on how old they are and how much they can understand.
Are Ben’s parents well intentioned? Yes. Do they have Ben’s best interests at heart? Yes. Are they going about things the right way? No. Ben’s parents are telling him that things that are the opposite of what he is seeing and feeling. This is very confusing to a child.
I told Boniphace to come with his family in the next visit. I was able to break the news of cancer to his little boy, something that his parents has failed to find a way to do it for several years worrying to emotionally hurt their son.
What should parents do?
Like any discussion on a serious topic (sex education, drugs or alcohol), parents should have a series of conversations that are brief and age appropriate.
Start by asking if the child has any questions about what is going on. Ideally, in this situation, Ben would have started getting information when his father was first diagnosed (That is: “dad has cancer in his lungs.
The doctors are going to take it out. You can’t catch it from him like a cold. He will need to take some medicine so it won’t come back.”), with updates along the way as needed (“The medicine dad is going to take is going to make his hair fall out, but it will grow back.”).
It is important to use the word cancer to distinguish it from any other type of illness.