A cancer diagnosis impacts not only the individual but their family, their friends, in fact anyone who loves them and cares about them. A diagnosis of cancer in parents who are in the midst of raising their children can be especially distressing. The confusion of a cancer diagnosis and the anticipation of weeks, months, or even years of treatment can result in feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, or helplessness for the whole family. A parent’s first concern is often their children. The instinct to protect them from the enormous challenges that are part of living with cancer in the family is especially strong. But what does it mean to protect? Wendy Schlessel Harpham, a doctor, cancer patient, mother of three and author of When a Parent Has Cancer wisely suggests that “the greatest gift you can give your children is not protection from change, loss, pain, or stress, but the confidence and tools to cope and grow with all that life has to offer them.” One of those tools to cope is honest, accurate information that includes a hopeful interpretation of the situation. The results of a new study confirmed that children who have a parent with cancer want and need this information.

The families that participated in this study included children as young as 10 years and as old as 18 years. Regardless of their ages these children expressed a strong desire to know what was happening with their parent’s cancer so that they could be better prepared for what might lie ahead. The children also reported that while their parents were their primary source for this information, they wished they had someone outside the family that they could talk to and ask the hard questions. Specifically they want to be able to talk with others who could understand their situation someone who had faced a similar experience. The parents in the study reported the most common reasons they didn’t share information were the fear of distressing their children and not feeling confident that they knew how to have the more difficult conversations with their children. This study demonstrated that both the parents and their children didn’t communicate openly because they were trying to protect each other.

The desire to protect is universal. The families, both the children and their parents, who participate in our education and support program, Facing Cancer Together, talk often about this desire to protect. They learn from each other to think more broadly about what it means to protect our loved ones. Children are better protected when they are informed. Research has shown that anxiety in children is reduced when they are informed about their parent’s diagnosis and prognosis.Children can handle the truth when it is presented to them in a developmentally appropriate manner. Whenever possible, provide information about your diagnosis, treatments and the potential side effects. This doesn’t mean these conversations need to happen every day or that they need to be long and drawn out. You know your children best. You can give them updates as you understand them and then assure them that you will let them know if there are any changes. This will establish a sense of trust that is crucial throughout the cancer experience and beyond and leave the door open for future conversations.

Cancer is not fair, but it is a fact of life. With the necessary information and support, your children your family can not only meet and manage this challenge but grow through the experience.

The writer is Missy Lundquist, co-director for Angel Foundation’s Facing Cancer Together programs