Veterans Resource: Talking to Children About Cancer

Veterans face higher cancer risks due to various military exposures. Most veterans willingly accepted this risk as part of the sacrifice to defend their country. However, when a cancer diagnosis becomes a reality, many veterans have not thought about how to tell their child or grandchild. The Camp Lejeune Claims Center has compiled information that may be able to help.

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Understanding Cancer Risk for Veterans

Military service can bring unseen dangers like increased cancer risk. The overall rates of cancer across each military branch can vary dramatically.

For example, a 2021 Pentagon investigation studied almost a million service members who flew or worked on military aircraft between 1992 and 2017. The results were unsettling.

Military aircrews were found to have these increased risks over the general population:

  • 87% higher rate of melanoma (skin cancer)
  • 19% higher rate of cancers of the brain and nervous system for ground crews
  • Men were 16% likelier to develop prostate cancer
  • Women were 16% more likely to develop breast cancer
  • 15% higher rate of thyroid cancer for ground crews
  • 9% higher likelihood of kidney or renal cancers for ground crews

Most veterans were well aware that their service and sacrifice would come with great risk. Now, with military service behind you, understanding your cancer risk is very important.

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Military Exposure & Your Health.

Are Veterans at Greater Risk for Cancer?

Yes. Numerous studies have linked military service with an increased risk of cancer. Different forms of cancer are linked to exposure to various toxins. Therefore, the cancer risk in veterans depends on when and where veterans served.

Unfortunately, service members who spent at least 30 days at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune have an especially high risk for cancer due to water contamination.

However, the Camp Lejeune water disaster is not the only potentially cancerous exposure for veterans.

These are some of the military operations linked with increased cancer risk:

  • Agent Orange (Vietnam War)
  • Burn pits (Gulf War & Post-911)
  • Ionizing radiation exposure (Enewetak Atoll, Palomares incident, and Thule Air Force Base in Greenland)
  • Mustard gas (Operation Iraqi Freedom)
  • Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility in Iraq (2003)
  • Waste incinerators near the Naval Air Facility in Atsugi, Japan (1985-2001)

Additionally, some of the highest concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are found on military bases. And widespread asbestos exposure has left a deadly legacy among veterans with increased rates of mesothelioma.

Veterans diagnosed with cancer may have been prepared for the possibility that the day would come. However, most didn’t think about how they’d tell their family, especially kids.

Should I Tell My Child or Grandchild About My Cancer?

Deciding whether to discuss your cancer diagnosis with your child or grandchild is a highly personal decision.

However, it is important to understand that children can often sense when something is wrong. And they may be even more upset if they believe that information is being hidden from them.

“Do not keep your diagnosis a secret. … Without correct information, they [children] may think things are worse than they are. They may also blame themselves for changes in their parents or family.”

—American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

While the decision is yours alone, most experts agree that you should tell the children in your life about your cancer diagnosis.

Take Time to Prepare Yourself

Preparing to share the news of your cancer diagnosis is an essential step that should not be improvised. If you are prepared, you can help ensure the conversation is as comforting and straightforward as possible.

Here are some tips to prepare for your conversation:

  • Choose an appropriate time. Rushing the conversation is not helpful. Avoid times right before other commitments and bedtime. Find a calm and unhurried moment to share the news.
  • Decide who you want to be with you. If you are telling your children, talk with your spouse or someone you trust about who should be in the room. If you are telling your grandchildren, speak with their parents first.
  • Give yourself time. Before you sit down with your child or grandchild, take some time to absorb the news yourself.
  • Make a list of key points. Think about the most important pieces of information you want to convey so you remember to hit them all in a natural way.

Get Educated on Your Condition

Another important way to prepare yourself is to become as educated about your condition as possible. Not only will this help manage your own care, but it will also help you anticipate any questions your child or grandchild may have.

But remember: Not all available information is accurate. It is in everyone’s interest to find the best and latest information available from only reputable sources.

Here are some credible cancer resources you can count on to start your search:

When in doubt, try this helpful tool from the NCI:

How to Find Cancer Resources You Can Trust

Having the Conversation

It’s important to be open and honest, using clear language that considers their age, personality, and capacity to process the news. A good place to start is with the basic facts about your type of cancer and where it is in your body. You can then tailor the conversation based on your loved one’s responses.

Tips for Talking With a Child About Cancer

When you share the news with your child, honesty and clarity are crucial. If you are not transparent, your child or grandchild may get even more scared.

Here are 5 tips for talking with children about your cancer:

  1. Keep the language straightforward and refer to your illness by its medical name.
  2. Try to direct the conversation by providing information and staying in control.
  3. Remember, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” But promise to get answers.
  4. Stay calm to show that you are coping, but don’t be afraid to express sadness.
  5. Welcome their questions, but also respect their wish not to talk if they’re not ready.

How Different Ages May Respond

Your child or grandchild is likely to respond differently depending on their age. Therefore, it is important to tailor your conversation accordingly and be prepared for different reactions.

Here are some typical reactions you can expect, as well as age-appropriate tools you can use to help support your conversation.

Preschoolers (3-6 years)

At this age, children are beginning to understand illness and death. However, they can’t always see things from another person’s point of view. Therefore, you should be careful to ensure they don’t think they somehow caused your illness.

Useful Tool
This Sesame Street video called “What Happened?” is designed to help children 6 and under process death. It can also help address grief and other tough situations with young children.

School-Age Children (7-12 years)

Older children can grasp more complex facts and the consequences of serious illnesses. Make sure to reassure them that you will always love them and that they will always be cared for. You may even wish to discuss the possibility of death if it is appropriate. You should be able to honestly discuss your condition and treatment plan using simple terms.

Useful Tool
MD Anderson Cancer Center created a video called “Kid to Kid: Your Parent Has Cancer” that you may wish to share with your child.

Adolescents (13-18 years)

Navigating the topic of your cancer diagnosis with teenagers requires understanding that most teens need independence. You should encourage an open dialogue about your condition, but also be prepared if they prefer talking with someone else about it.

Useful Tool

How to Answer a Child’s Questions About Cancer

There is no way to predict what your child or grandchild will ask you. However, thinking about how you would answer common questions can help you prepare for how you respond to your child.

5 Questions Kids Have About Cancer

While every child is different, kids tend to have similar reactions when they find out their loved ones have cancer. This means their questions tend to follow a pattern.

Here are some common questions children have about cancer:

  1. What is cancer?
  2. Is cancer contagious?
  3. Why did this happen?
  4. Will I get cancer too?
  5. Are you going to die?

Talking With Your Child or Grandchild About Death

Be straightforward if you decide to talk about death with your child or grandchild. It’s best to avoid using substitutions intended to soften the blow — they often cause confusion. Most children process death slowly, so you should be prepared to be patient.

Make sure to create a supportive network for them so they know they are not alone. Remind them of things you have to look forward to in the future so they remain optimistic.

After You’ve Shared the News

The initial conversation with your child or grandchild is a huge part of the path ahead. However, it is not the only one. The process will be ongoing, and you should also be prepared for that.

“Remember that this conversation is only the first of many and that you can revisit important information as often as necessary.”

—Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Check in with your child or grandchild regularly to see how they are doing. You should also monitor their behavior to look for red flags that they are not processing the news in a healthy manner.

It’s important to understand how your family’s situation can affect your child or grandchild emotionally and be prepared to offer them the support they need. If you are unable to help them cope on your own, make sure to seek additional help and support.

Understanding Childhood Trauma

A cancer diagnosis within the family can provoke a range of emotional and behavioral responses in children, often mirroring those observed in grief. Recognizing these signs is crucial for providing the necessary support.

These can be warning signs that a child is struggling with your cancer diagnosis:

  • Anger or irritability
  • Anxiety or social withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep patterns or appetite
  • Feelings of sadness
  • Overwhelming sense of your presence
  • Persistent thoughts about your illness
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches

Each child reacts uniquely to the stress of a cancer diagnosis, with responses influenced by age, comprehension level, personality, and even differences among siblings within the same family.

Effects of Childhood Trauma

Approximately 25% of children experience posttraumatic stress and impaired quality of life after a parent’s cancer diagnosis, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

Traumatic stress can worsen mental health issues, disrupt learning, and be misunderstood by adults. Even positive memories of a parent can unexpectedly trigger distress, leading to avoidance behaviors in children.

Three types of reminders can trigger distress:

  1. Trauma reminders: Any reminders of your diagnosis or its treatment, like hospital visits, medical equipment, or certain smells
  2. Loss reminders: Situations that bring to mind what your diagnosis took away, such as observing friends engaging in activities you can no longer do together
  3. Change reminders: Adjustments in the child’s life due to your illness, like changes in daily routines or caregiving arrangements

Understanding these reactions and triggers can guide caregivers in providing appropriate support, ensuring children have the resources to navigate their emotions healthily.

Childhood Trauma Support Resources

Addressing childhood trauma effectively is vital for the emotional well-being and future happiness of your child or grandchild.

Here are several resources that can help with childhood trauma:

  • Child Mind Institute: Offers clinical care, resources, and guidance for children and families dealing with trauma-related issues
  • The official parenting website of the American Academy of Pediatrics, offering trustworthy and evidence-based information on child health and development
  • National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN): Provides a wide range of resources and support for children and families dealing with various types of trauma

Seeking professional support through reputable organizations and maintaining open, honest communication within the family are important. These steps can help foster resilience and healing for your child or grandchild.

Veterans Resource: Managing Life With Cancer

Military veterans are no strangers to sacrifice. While it’s tempting to put your child or grandchild ahead of yourself, don’t forget to address your own needs as well.

There are many available resources to help veterans manage life with cancer.

Make a Plan

Planning ahead is critical to ensure you and your family can live the best lives possible, despite your diagnosis. Unfortunately, many families learn the hard way that expenses related to cancer care can drain nest eggs.

If your cancer is related to the toxic water at Camp Lejeune, you may be able to access compensation through a lawsuit. This is in addition to your VA benefits, and you may be eligible even if you were denied benefits in the past.

Find out if you are eligible with our simple claim process now. There is no cost or obligation, and the case review is confidential.

VA Resources

While the VA offers veterans a wide range of benefits and services, they can be challenging to navigate. This may be especially true for veterans who are also dealing with cancer.

Keep in mind, after you pass away, your family may not even know what they are entitled to through your veterans benefits. Therefore, it is extremely important to get things in order for them.

Veteran Service Officers (VSOs) are experts in navigating the complexities of the VA. They can help with claims processes, reduce the chance of making errors, and help with benefits denials.

You can request assistance from a VSO from the following organizations:

You can also search the VA’s database to find out who your current VSO is or search for a new one.

Through their in-depth knowledge and commitment to advocacy for veterans, VSOs can make all the difference in your life. They can help alleviate stress, free up your time, and ensure you receive the benefits you deserve for your brave service and sacrifice.

The Camp Lejeune Claims Center exists to help military veterans harmed by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune to get the financial compensation they deserve. We're ready to help you — at no out-of-pocket cost to you or your family.

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