Talking To Your Children About Your Metastatic Melanoma Diagnosis

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Telling your children about your metastatic melanoma diagnosis sure isn't an easy conversation. “It's most important to not scare them and let them know you are in control of your health care,” according to Amy Wechsler, M.D., a New York dermatologist and spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation. However, the guiding principle should be to tell the truth. Keep reading for tips on talking to your kids about your diagnosis.

Father explaining cancer diagnosis to his son.
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Be Prepared to Talk to Them When You’re Ready

While you may be anxious to share your diagnosis right away, it may help to wait until you have definitive information about your illness, the treatment, and your prognosis. Arm yourself with enough knowledge to answer your children’s questions accurately but don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” if you aren’t sure. Later, you and your child can research the answer.

Family having a discussion in the living room.
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Choose Your Time and Place

As with so many things in life, timing is everything. Choose a time and place that feels comfortable and free from distractions and interruptions. Some families choose after dinner, when everyone is naturally together. Others may feel that earlier in the day, when kids are well-rested, is a better option. The important part is that you can talk freely, without interruptions.

Mother supported by her two children.
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Explain That This Is a Long-term Journey

After a diagnosis of metastatic melanoma, you’ll have good days and bad days. But through it all, you still have cancer and need treatment. Your children may be aware of relatives or parents of their friends who have had cancer and are now cancer-free. They may not understand what it means to have metastatic melanoma. It's up to you whether you share your prognosis or whether you explain that you are very sick and will require treatment for an extended time.

Child holding her mother's hand on the way to school.
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Changes in Daily Life Will Happen

Kids, as any parent knows, thrive with routine and structure, and your diagnosis may disrupt that. They'll be better able to deal with any upheaval in the coming weeks and months if they know what to expect. Take a few minutes to explain to your child what might change (for instance, who cares for them after school on weeks when you have treatment) and what certainly won't (your love for them!).

Father teaching his son how to ride a bike.
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Explain Who Will Care for Them When You Can’t

Children are often understandably concerned about who will care for them. Discuss your plan of action: “Your dad will still be here to care for you,” “Mom doesn’t have cancer and can continue to care for you while Dad is sick,” or “Grandmom will be taking you to your activities.” Let them know that no matter what, a loving grownup will be there for them.

Mother comforting her son.
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It’s No One’s Fault

Make sure your children know that they didn’t cause the cancer and it’s absolutely no one's fault that this is happening to your family. In an effort to try to make sense of their world, children may sometimes think that their actions (for instance, their tantrums) caused your illness. Emphasize that cancer is not anyone’s fault. Let them also know that cancer is not contagious.

Daughter asking her mother questions about melanoma.
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Explain What Cancer Is

Your children may have heard about cancer through TV, movies, or the internet, but they may not understand what it is and how it harms the body. Explain in terms your child can understand based on their age and maturity level what cancer is, how it develops, and what the goal of treatment is. You may want to explain the difference between localized cancer and metastatic cancer.

Parents talking to their daughter.
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Make the Conversation Age-appropriate

Keep the language you use simple for younger children. You understand your child's maturity level best. Use concrete terms and reassure them that you are receiving the best care. Young children, especially those between the ages of 5 and 8 years old, often focus on how the illness will affect them. This is developmentally appropriate; don’t get offended that they don’t seem too concerned with your health.

Father explaining cancer diagnosis to his son.
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Talk About How the Cancer Will Affect You

Will it require you to go in the hospital, will you need more rest, will you be in pain? Explain that there may be times you don’t feel well or that you may miss some of their activities. You might even tell them that treatment may make you feel very bad some days. Let them know how they can help. This allows them to feel they are contributing to your care.

Mother and her son doing research together.
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Be Accurate

The unknown or unexplained can actually frighten kids more than the truth can. (Actually, this goes for adults, too.) Be honest without being overly technical or gloomy. If you have older children, remember they will probably Google metastatic melanoma immediately following your chat. Let them know the facts of your situation, to combat inaccurate or despairing info they may find during their internet searches. And remind them they can come to you with any questions any time, too.

Child washing the dishes.
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Be Prepared for a Range of Reactions

Your children may experience different emotions and reactions in response to your news. Some may act out because they don’t know how to process this information. Others may withdraw because this is easier than dealing with fact that the parent they love to pieces (though they may not act like it) is sick. And still other kids may try to be the adult and take on a great deal of responsibility. All these reactions are normal.

Boy talking to a mental health counselor.
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Reach Out to Professionals

If you’re having difficulty planning what to say, or your children are struggling to grapple with your news, reach out to professionals. Social workers and counselors can help guide you in framing your conversation or can talk with your children afterward to better help them cope with your metastatic melanoma diagnosis and subsequent changes in the family. There's a good chance you'll all come out of this even stronger and closer.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.