When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I was 37 years old, and I had to figure out what to tell my children who were 8 and 5 at the time.

Communication is one of my strengths, partially because of my personality, how I was raised, and also my profession (social worker). However, when faced with telling my children that I had cancer, I struggled at first to figure out what words would be best to use. I truly believe that it's important to share things as openly and honestly as possible with our children at their level, but this was a scary topic. At the time, I was very emotional and scared, so I was afraid that they would pick up on that when I talked to them.

But guess what? I realized that it was OK if they did really see my emotions. It's OK if our children see us scared. It's OK if our children see us vulnerable. It's OK because they will feel those emotions in their lives, and what a gift to them to show them that it's OK to cry and to be scared and to feel whatever you are feeling.

For me, I kept it very simple and told them that they found some things (cells) on my thyroid that shouldn't be there (cancer) and that I was going to have surgery and be gone only one night to have my thyroid taken out. The only question they had at that time was, "Are you going to feel the surgery?" When I assured them that I would be asleep the whole time, they were relieved.

One month later, I had to have radioactive iodine treatment and I had to share with them that I would have to be away from them for five days. I was swallowing a radioactive pill (I think I referenced super hero powers) that would make sure that they got all the yucky stuff out of my body. As I've written about before, I had to have two rounds of the treatment (a year apart), so I had to explain that I had to do the treatment one more time. They really didn't have as many questions at that time as I thought they would. I realized that if our children haven't been exposed to the word "cancer" before, they don't have the same reaction to it as we do as adults.

Four and a half years later, in April of 2015, I found out that I had to have an additional surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes. It was a much different discussion with my children at this point, because they were 13 and 10.

My son became very quiet and was clearly "shaken up." He was doing a project on Steve Jobs and just finished reading about how he died of cancer. He was concerned about my cancer spreading, and the doctors not being able to treat me. Real concerns. Real questions.

My daughter, 10 at the time, was very focused on the surgery and surgeon. How did I know he was good? What if he didn't get everything out? What if I died during surgery?

Real concerns. Real questions. I reassured both of them as best I could, but it was tough for me because I realized that they were older and understood more. There was something nice about the blissful ignorance they had as young children when I was first diagnosed.

I hope the only conversations I have going forward with my children about cancer, are about how I beat it. I hope I never have to sit them down and see fear in their eyes because of my illness. I also hope that by being open with them and communicating with love and honesty, they will learn as they grow up to do that in their lives when faced with difficult situations.


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Did you have to tell young children about your cancer diagnosis? What did you say to them? Share your comments below.

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About the Author

Jeanette Joseph grew up in Milwaukee within a very close family with her parents, Paul and Judy, an identical twin sister, Carolyn, her younger sister, Brenda, and younger brother, Gregory. Her father is Paul Joseph, who spent his career as our local expert meteorologist on TMJ-4 for 36 years. She was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in July 2010. After her diagnosis she had a thyroidectomy (surgery to remove her thyroid) and a round of RAI -- radioactive iodine treatment. In 2011, she went through another round of RAI treatment after it became clear that she had residual metastasized thyroid cancer in her body, but that treatment was not effective. In April 2015, she went through a left neck dissection surgery after it was identified which lymph nodes the residual cancer was "hiding" in. She is still healing from the surgery, but is hopeful that they got all of the cancer out of her body. Her identical twin sister, Carolyn Wesley was diagnosed with the same cancer within weeks of Jeanette?s diagnosis, so they've gone through this challenging journey together.

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