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For families with kids, a cancer diagnosis can be a difficult conversation to navigate

Family conversation about cancer
Posted at 10:59 AM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-25 12:23:37-05

BALTIMORE, Md. — Cancer is the kind of prognosis that can upend a family. Every year in the country, countless moms and dads find themselves grappling with how to talk to their kids about a difficult diagnosis.

Among them are Anne Sibert and her husband, Joe Filippazzo.

A few years ago, the mother of two found a lump. Doctors eventually diagnosed her with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"If the kids get a cold, they get over in a few days. It can take me a few months," Sibert said.

At the time of her diagnosis, the couple’s daughter Olive was almost 2. Their son, Orion, was 5. The couple explored ways to tell the children their mom had cancer.

For Orion, the answer for how to relay the news was in his favorite escape: legos. Using the plastic pieces, the parents showed Orion how cancer multiplied and spread.

"We told him that some of mom's cells, they don’t know when to stop and showed that with legos," Filippazzo recalled.

The couple's tactic of finding something familiar to explain a cancer diagnosis is the path experts say families should take if they find themselves in a similar situation.

"There are some things about cancer we may never understand," said Dr. Kyle Pruett, a professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and member of the Educational Advisory Board at The Goddard School.

Dr. Pruett lost his own father to cancer when he was young, so he understands how difficult these conversations can be.

"Children as young as 3 months, 3 months. They’re not even sitting up yet. They are already, are aware of emotional events around them," Dr. Pruett explained.

By some estimates, nearly 2.8 million children under the age of 18 are living with a parent affected by cancer. There are a few things Dr. Pruett says to remember if your family is facing a cancer diagnosis.

Among his tips is to ensure the sick parent is the one having the conversation, and to ask for forgiveness when you're having bad days.

"The first thing to do is you don’t start with a lecture. You start with a question. 'Have you heard anything about mom going to the doctor and she hasn’t been feeling well?' And then, you wait for an answer. You don't rush," he added.

While it might sound strange, Dr. Pruett says in his experience, not every aspect of a cancer diagnosis can be negative.

"The bringing together and expression of love and support is better than medication we give our patients," Dr. Pruett said.