How to Tell a 5 Year Old That Dad Has Cancer

Updated on June 14, 2008
M.S. asks from Zephyrhills, FL
5 answers

I am hoping that somebody out there will know how to handle this situation. We just received the news that my brother-n-law has been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, it starts at the base of his esophagus and has reached the top of his stomach. How and when should they tell my 5 year old niece the full extent of what is happening? I wish they did not have to tell her but she will figure something out as they are meeting with the oncologist this Friday as he has decided to do chemo and radiation and will be getting very ill. I know that they have explained to her that daddy is sick and will need to take some medicine, but how and when should they tell her the rest? I would also ask that you keep them close in thought and in prayers as we know GOD can work miracles.
Also does anyone know of ways for him to get nutrition and keep his strenght up as he has already lost 30 pounds due to his having problems eating and once he starts treatment will be unable to eat very little if anything?
I will be traveling to Tennesse to stay with her for a little while, any suggestions on how to be helpful without stepping on their toes or offending them? I know that they must deal with this in their own way and time but on the other hand would like to be supportive any and all suggestions will be welcomed.
Thanks M.

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So What Happened?

I have been waiting to post an update hoping that I would have good news to share. Mark went through three bouts of chemo and seemed to do okay, he even went to work the day he came home from the hospital with the exception of the first. Things are not good at the moment as he went through major surgery last Tuesday and had his esophogus and part of his stomach removed, he was in ICU until late last Thursday and will most likely be in the hospital for at least another week. They tried to do a swollow test yesterday but were unsucessful as he could not swallow and it started going into his lungs. From what we understand they are not sure if they were able to get all of it and they are still waiting for the results of the biopsies that were taken during surgery. During surgery they discovered that his lymph nodes were swollen. They drove down the weekend before he had surgery and picked up my mom so she could be there to help take care of my niece, who has figured out how to call Aunt M. on granmas cell and has called me several times. My niece finally got to see her dad yesterday but not for long as he was not feeling the greatest. When he was having chemo and his hair started falling out he shaved his head and turned it into a game for my niece. Thankfully my niece has started kindergarden so at least she has school to occupy her time. Unfortunately it is my niece who is getting short changed as my sister is spending the biggest majority of her time at the hospital can't get her to understand that my niece also needs her.It is amazing that they were able to create a new esophogus, but the recovery process is going to be very long and difficult as Mark thinks he should be able to go home, however the doctors are telling a totaly different story. I was unable to go to TN this time due to school and other obligations that I have, but have been in constant contact. I wish I knew where they were headed from here and how to help them out. We have been helping them out finacially as much as we are able and thankfully he works for someone that is keeping his paychecks coming and will also be keeping his insurance going as we figure by the time he is done they will be close to $500,000 in medical bills. We have heard they are waiting to see if they will need to do another procedure and as we understand when he does go home it will be with the feeding tube which he has not be told this bit of news. I will keep you posted as things go along and will keep each and everyone of you in my thoughts and prayers. I pray that God will grant them a miracle.

More Answers



answers from Tampa on

I'm so sorry to hear of your brother in laws condition. I lost my mother in law to the same thing just over 6 years ago. (And my grandfather before that.) My son was just an infant at the time so we didn't really need to say anything. Except Nana is in heaven. She died short of his 2nd B-day but she planned well and had her shopping done. We found his wrapped presents when we cleared out her house. She even wrote down what items she wanted specifically to go to each of us. I would probably suggest to just keep saying what you are for now. "Daddy is very sick" and keep reassuring the love. Unfortunately, she'll see what's happening to her Dad soon enough. Maybe a little bit later your family can break the bad news to her. My mother in law had to have her throat "opened up" (or stretched) several times. That seemed to help a little, but she ate softer foods. Eventually she was put on a feeding tube. She was very strong willed as she had just retired and fully expected to be a Nana to my son. There was just something on Oprah a day or 2 ago about a young woman diagnosed w/ stage 4 cancer and she started eating extremely healthy and whole foods. Making her own juices from fresh veggies and etc. AND staying possitive living in the moment. Meaning not worrying about what will happen, but enjoying the right now. She was holding her own without chemo. Perhaps you could look up that episode. As morbid as it sounds too, he may want to start writing things down for his daughter so that when she gets older she can read his advice on things.(Being a teenager, boys, marriage, babies...) He may not be up to it, but it'll be important to her later. And it'll be easier for him now before his thoughts get clouded with the sickness. Something else that happens closer to the end is, our family had to take turns staying at my mother in law's house. She started having "fears". When the throat closes like that, you worry about breathing. Or being able to breathe even with the oxygen tank right there. It might be a good idea if the little girl had someone she can stay with every once in awhile. Just so she doesn't have to witness all this all of the time. Maybe things will work out better for your brother in law, and I really hope so, cancer is a terrible thing. All my best to you and the family.

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answers from Tampa on

I went through it when I was younger. I am the older of 3 children and my father was first diagnosed with cancer when I was 13. My youngest sibling was 6 at the time. My mother actually spoke the the Oncologist about how to tell us and it turns out that most of them have books and coloring books for kids explaining the cancer in a way that is non-threatening and at "their level". I was older so I understood, but my 2 sister had a rough time. You can also look online, they may have some books and things that can help. It got harder for us because my father went into remission and then the cancer came back a year later. He had a bone marrow transplant and is doing well 15 years later, but that was really hard on the family and very hard to explain to the younger kids since we were not allowed to go into the hospital to see him because of germs and he was in there for 2 months. I would just say, ask the doctor. Dealing with a family is a very common thing and tey may be able to help! As for the nutrition, my father ended up drinking lot of smoothies, Ensure and milkshakes. doesn't sound like much of a diet, but it has some vitamins and nutrition to it! Best of luck to your family. You will be in my thoughts!

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answers from Tampa on

I am sorry that all this is happening and you are right to be concerned and it is wonderful that you care enough. I do though agree with Lynn S. Let the parents handle it. Most doctors/nurses and support staffs for the oncologists/hospitals/etc.. know what needs to be said/how to say it and the resourses available.

Most importantly - live life as normal around the child and the family. ESPECIALLY the child. Don't call attention to the situation with comments like "BIL you need to eat more _______""You look so tired" things like that. Ask SIL if there is anything you can do or can you take your niece places on his treatment days, etc.. This is the hard part - Don't show the fear/sadness around the child. If she asks why people are sad - tell it it is hard to see someone you love sick. As far as his diet - let the doctors/nutritionist/dietician handle that as supplements/herbs/etc.. could be a problem with the treatments/medications.

I am telling this from experience - my MIL passed away 6yrs ago and my then 5yo DD was so close to her (she watched my dd daily at times) and my MIL had parkinsons and went through hospice and all - she lapsed into a coma after being in the hospital - she passed at home with all of us there. We had well meaning family/friends try to tell us how to deal with telling our DD or what we should do with MIL but it got to the point that I had to tell people to back off as all their "help" was being additional stress as it made me feel like I/We weren't doing anything right.

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answers from Tampa on

God Bless you and your family during this touch time. I just recently saw a show which featured a College Professor dying of cancer. He gave his last lecture which has been downloaded over 1 million times. Its incredible and something you brother in law and family should see- Its here is the link: its the Official site for Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon University Professor of Computer Science. Includes photos and video of his "Last Lecture" on living one's childhood dreams, as well as video of his "Time Management" talk. He has 3 children all 5 and under. The advise he has received is NOT to tell the children until the signs are obvious that "daddy is sick". I am sure you will find more by checking out his site and listenting to the lecture. Ophra just did a show on him yesterday - amazing.... Good Luck and Prayers be with you all.

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answers from Tampa on

First, my thoughts and prayers are with you brother-in-law and his family.

My uncle had cancer a few years ago in his jaw area. It really affected his eating. My dad and a friend went out and bought him a bunch of those nutrition drinks. I know one was Ensure. I can't remember the other. Those helped a lot.

As far as his daughter I'm not completely sure. I remember when I was teaching 3rd grade, a student in my class was also going through this with her dad. She would have been 8. I remember her mom telling me that they explained to her daughter that dad was really, really sick. They let her know ahead of time what she would be seeing as far as side effects from chemo and how he would be going to the doctor a lot. Th doctor told them not to go into details as far as his chances of making it or not. He said to let her come to them with those types of questions. He said that when she asked those questions, that meant she was ready to deal with it. So it was over a year before she asked if he was going to die.

I also wanted to recommend starting up a caring bride site for him. I'm not sure if you're familiar with it. But if you go to you can set up a free website for him and his wife (or you or anybody) can update it. That way friends and family can go there and get updates. It's also a great way to let others know what to pray about specifically. I have a long list I pray for that are dealing with mostly cancer. Here's one: . People can also leave words of encouragement and I've heard a lot of people talk about how much support that was to them.

I will be praying for him. After praying for a lot of people with cancer, I know why they call it a beast. It's wonderful that you're going up there to support them. I'm sure that will be a blessing.


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