A User Friendly Guide to Helping Kids Cope with Your Cancer
Did you ever wish that kids came with a set of directions, maybe something comparable to a driver’s manual that comes with a car? It would make life so much easier. And when particularly difficult challenges arise, like talking to your kids about cancer, a “how-to” manual would really come in handy.
Karen Atkins, oncology social worker at the Virtua Fox Chase Cancer Program, knows how to help navigate the rough waters of cancer. Her calm, soothing voice, and practical advice make the journey of learning how to help your children cope when you are diagnosed with cancer a smoother one. And if she put a manual together, it would probably look something like this:
Section 1: Honesty is the Best Policy
“Children need information in age-appropriate terms that they can understand,” says Atkins. The starting point for any cancer-related discussion needs to be at a time and in a place where everyone can be free to speak, ask questions and not be rushed. It’s important to tell children the whole truth about your cancer rather than giving bits and pieces of information. The things that children imagine and create in their minds tend to be far worse than the reality of the situation. Instill in the children and the family that there are normal feelings that go along with cancer by saying things like, “Mom has good days and bad days and so will you.” It affords the opportunity to teach them that with honesty, the family can get through any crisis together.
Section 2: Everything Goes Hand in Hand
What are the red flags that parents should look for to know if a child needs extra helping coping with a parent’s cancer diagnosis? “It’s important to stress to kids that it’s okay to cry. In fact, it’s perfectly normal,” comments Atkins. In Virtua’s children’s cancer counseling program “Hand in Hand,” Atkins helps parents understand the difference between normal behaviors and warning signs that a child might need extra support such as a child who’s not sleeping or eating well, or one whose behavior changes at school or home.
Section 3: A One of a Kind Toolbox
Coping Toolboxes are plastic boxes decorated by the patient’s child that are filled with things that make him or her feel good. It may contain a favorite CD, a note from mom, or a favorite stuffed animal. “Getting the child to think about and learn how to calm themselves down and give themselves comfort empowers them and helps them feel in control of the situation,” explains Atkins. In creating Coping Toolboxes, Atkins works with each child to develop a “feelings vocabulary” helping them to express themselves better.
Section 4: Everyone Needs an Oasis
Atkins volunteers her time one day every summer at Camp Oasis. Located in the New Jersey Pinelands, Camp Oasis is a place where children and teenagers can enjoy a relaxed day of activities and talk about their feelings, hopes and fears. All who are invited to attend have at least one common bond—someone special in their lives is battling cancer. At this free one-day camp, care is provided by nurses of the South Jersey Chapter of the Oncology Nursing society, and alumni volunteer as camp counselors who share their personal experiences as well.
The Virtua Fox Chase Cancer Program's highly integrated team of oncology specialists is dedicated to providing individualized, state-of-the-art treatment – and personalized supportive care – to patients with many types of cancer. For more information, call a Virtua Personal Navigator at 1-877-896-6267.
Virtua.org: Why choose Virtua for cancer care?
Column: The Tell
Support: Virtua cancer education and support groups (choose topic: cancer)