How to Talk to a Child or Teen That Has Been Diagnosed with Cancer, written by NNCCF Kiddo, Emma
Conversations can be hard, and having a conversation with a child or teenager who has been diagnosed with cancer can seem nearly impossible if worried about saying the wrong thing. Speaking from experience as someone who has been on both ends of these difficult conversations – I know that it can be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. When meeting someone who has just been diagnosed or is in active treatment for childhood cancer, it can feel as if you are walking on eggshells and you might not know how to ask questions about how they are doing. In all honesty, the person you are asking probably won’t mind your curiosity. I was diagnosed with cancer when I was fourteen; I was a freshman in high school and my biggest worry was which parent was going to take me to basketball practice. As time went on and treatment started, I could feel people around me start to be a bit more guarded when it came to starting conversations, especially when I had to leave my port tube in and wear it to school. Once this started to happen, the strange looks came with it. Most days it wouldn’t bother me because we were young and kids in high school can’t fully gather the concept of people going through treatment unless they have seen, experienced, or asked about it. What actually bothered me was when my teachers would stare at the tube that hung out of my chest. Through my entire cancer journey, I always preferred people to ask me why I had a tube in my chest rather than stare at me and make me feel like an outsider because of it.
To prepare for this article, I conducted an interview with a peer. We talked about what she felt were the hardest conversations to have, the questions she wanted to ask, and some subjects that she felt were hard to bring up when asking about my cancer experience. These were the six main points:
- Do you feel comfortable asking what the person’s diagnosis is? How would you word your question?
As a patient I never minded when people would ask what type of cancer I had been diagnosed with. There is a really good way to word this question in order to not sound disrespectful as well. Starting your sentence off with “If you don’t mind me asking” or “if you are comfortable telling me “, is a good way to go. Test the waters with the conversation and don’t start with this question right off the bat, this will make the person you are talking to feel like a human rather than a patient.
- When you want to ask how your friend or family is doing mentally, how do you go about doing this? Is it hard to answer this question when people ask it?
It is 100% okay to ask someone how they are doing, when it comes to the mental aspect of someone’s cancer battle. It’s also helpful to take into account how old they are. A teenager is easier to approach because they are able to put their feelings into words, but don’t push. Instead of diving right into the how are you doing mentally question, ask how they are and how treatment is going. If they are struggling a bit mentally they might bring it up to you. This open-ended question lets the person know that you care how they are doing without them feeling uncomfortable.
- It can be confusing when someone is not visibly sick and you don’t completely understand how treatment works but want to ask about their diagnosis.
Not everyone fighting cancer will look the same. Everyone responds to their chemo and other therapies differently, as the side effects can present themselves in many different ways. Some will lose their hair, some won’t. I never lost my hair, but was always very sick. Over the years I received a lot of speculation on my diagnosis due to the lack of hair loss, even though internally I could feel the effects of the chemotherapy. If you don’t understand why some kids have certain side effects that others don’t, do some research! Approaching someone about their side effects is not always the best way to go, so it’s always encouraged to be more educated on cancer and cancer treatment.
- How would you ask a child how they are doing mentally or physically?
A quick “how are you” is the best way to ask. Simple, sweet, and it’s easy to answer especially for the younger kids.
- I’m curious to how treatment is going and wondering how to ask about it.
It’s better to not overthink when approaching these types of questions. “How is treatment going” works perfectly fine, and if you are confused on how treatment works it’s okay to ask about that as well. Older kids might explain their treatment plan if they are comfortable; In my experience I always preferred when people asked me directly, especially when I had the tube in my chest if they were confused.
- Should you talk to someone who has cancer differently than someone who doesn’t?
The simple answer to this is no. At the end of the day, we are humans and having cancer should not be a reason to be treated differently. Make conversation about other things that are happening in the child’s life and bring up other topics than their diagnoses. When being diagnosed, most of our conversations involve treatment, so it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to talk about other things every once and a while.
Don’t over complicate these interactions! As long as you are respectful and mindful with how you ask questions and approach the conversation, you should be fine. Remember no matter the diagnosis their cancer does not define them.
This article was written by Emma, cancer survivor, NNCCF support recipient, Inspire Scholarship awardee, and NNCCF Intern