For a parent, there may be nothing scarier than being diagnosed with a serious illness. In addition to your own fears for the future, you're worrying about your children: How will they manage when you're sick? Should you keep your game face on or do you reveal just how worried you are? Should you tell them anything at all about your illness? The answers depend on the individual personalities involved, but experts say there are some general rules that can make this difficult time easier:

Keep it age appropriate. You may need to deal with each of your children differently if they're at different levels of maturity. An older child probably can handle more detailed information than a younger one. When Margarita Vacanti of Lakewood, Colorado, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, she had three children who were still in preschool. She and her husband presented the news in very basic terms, explaining that the body is made up of something called cells, and that she had some bad cells that were hurting her body, and for which she was taking medicine.

Keep the lines of communication open. Vacanti and her husband made sure their children knew when she was going into the hospital for certain procedures. When she had chemotherapy, they told the children that she would be really tired for awhile and that family and friends might pick them up from school or take them out for meals.

Don't overshare or overexpose. You will have emotional ups and downs during treatment, so consider talking to your kids when you're feeling relatively calm. Vacanti says that she sometimes felt blue, which she didn't hide from her children, but she tried to present her best face. "I was careful not to let them see me completely fall apart," she recalls; she knew that seeing her like that would not help her children cope. She also made a deliberate decision not to have them visit her in the hospital while she recovered from surgeries: "We did not want to expose them to me at these low points that were most definitely temporary."

Don't ignore the "Are you going to die?" question. This one can really hit a parent in the gut, but it's important to address. When Vacanti's oldest daughter asked her this, she answered that she didn't think she was going to die, and that the doctors were working hard to make sure she didn't. Vacanti, who recently celebrated five years of being cancer- free, also told her daughter that medicine was continually improving, and that many people in her family had successfully fought cancer. 

Danielle Dewil, LCSW, reviewed this article.



"For Parents: Talking to Your Children About Cancer." Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Web. Page accessed July 29, 2013.

"Talking about cancer." Kaiser Permanente. Web. Page accessed September 11, 2013.!ut/p/c4/