According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 3 million children under age 18 in the United States have a parent or family member with cancer. A cancer diagnosis in a family with children comes with unique challenges.
In San Diego's South Bay, a special kind of support group is now being offered at the Douglas & Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. The first of its kind offered in Chula Vista, the group allows a safe place for children to get their questions about cancer answered.
"Explaining cancer diagnosis and treatment to a child is especially tough," explains Cara Fairfax, MSW, LCSW, a clinical social worker at the Barnhart Cancer Center. "We usually suggest to tell the truth when sharing this difficult news, but in a way that a child can easily understand."
For children, Fairfax suggests focusing on the below when sharing information about the diagnosis and treatment plans:
- Explain that it is not the child's fault — or anyone's fault — that a loved one has cancer
- Share the name of the cancer, such as breast or bone
- Describe where the cancer is on the body
- Explain how it will be treated, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy
- Discuss how it will change their lives or regular schedule
"Besides the specific illness a parent may have, children may also worry they did something to cause it, feel guilty about sharing their own emotions or concerns and other stressors," says Fairfax. "This is where support groups can really be beneficial as they allow children to connect with one another and open up about their feelings and concerns."
Fairfax adds, "You can see on the kids' faces that everything that is said resonates with each one of them in the room. They know they're not alone. That the emotions they feel and the thoughts being shared are shared by each of them."
The Children and Family Cancer Support Group is free and open to all in the community, regardless of where treatment is received. It meets on the first Monday of every month from 4 to 5:30 pm at the Douglas & Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista.