A key issue pertaining to a parent’s diagnosis of cancer is how to appropriately communicate the diagnosis and related matters to children. What resources are there that can help?

Using books to explain cancer to a child

When a parent has cancer, it is a real challenge to find the balance between informing children truthfully, while at the same time minimizing harm and fear, especially for young children. In comparison to older children who might have learned about cancer previously, young children often have no or limited experience of cancer and might need more help in understanding the situation.

Children’s books can be a great resource to help parents, teachers, and healthcare providers with this communication; illustrated books can be especially useful for young children (aged 3-12).

Two such books are “Nowhere Hair” and “A mom of many hats.” Both illustrated books portray a heart-warming story of a child/children facing the situation of maternal cancer. The main content considers cancer-related knowledge, the impact of maternal breast cancer on the whole family, and coping strategies for children. These books can help children talk about their feelings along with exploring ways to cope and both give and receive support.

This week we’ll look at “Nowhere Hair” and next week, we’ll review  “A mom of many hats” which is suitable for slightly older children than this week’s book. 

Nowhere Hair by Sue Glader

Summary

This book is suggested for children aged 3-7 years old. The narratives are in rhyme which lends a gentle lilt and rhythm to reading the book. The simple, stylish watercolor illustrations (by Edith Buenen) help the pre-reader follow along with the story, and show different emotions and coping skills.

Nowhere Hair tells the story of a young girl whose mother loses her hair. As the child tries to find the hair, she learns that her mother has cancer. During treatment, we see the mother still being silly, loving, fashionable, and happy, but also tired and cranky.

The type of cancer is not specified, so the book is appropriate for any cancer.

The author was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33 when she had a one-year-old. 

Content of the book

Cancer-related knowledge:

  • The book does not explicitly inform the reader about what cancer is. Rather it underscores that cancer is not something contagious so that “when she kisses me, I can’t catch what she’s got.” Also, to allay any feelings of guilt, the child is reassured that nothing she has done, said, or thought has caused this to happen.
  • Chemotherapy is described as the “…. medicine I take to cure my cancer” and that this is what has caused the mother to lose her hair.
  • Another side effect of the treatment shown in the book is the mother feeling tired and not being able to do as much for the child.

Impact of maternal cancer:

  • The emotions of both the child and the family are discussed, including feelings of fear, guilt, worry, and confidence. The book underscores that these emotions are normal.
  • Care is taken to reassure the child that the parents’ love for her has not changed, even if their day to day activities might change.

Coping strategies:

  • Hats are used as a way for both the child and mother to express their emotions openly. So a different hat can be worn to show that the wearer is feeling sleepy, crabby, silly, or happy. It is good to see positive emotions included here.
  • The daughter expresses empathy and concern regarding how others will relate to her mother:“if you see her [the mother], please be kind. Don’t snicker and don’t stare.”

Conclusion

Sue Glader has the balance just right in this book. She sensitively acknowledges both the child’s and parents’ emotions associated with cancer. The ending then reminds us that none of this changes their love, rather “it’s what’s inside that counts,” not how we look on the outside.

Nowhere Hair is gentle. It can ease difficult conversations. The information it includes is age- appropriate and presented beautifully.

Here is a link to purchase Nowhere Hair.  

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