Advice

Ask Ada: Should I Tell My Daughter I Have Skin Cancer?

Plus: how do you help a family member through their grief when they prematurely lose someone?

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Welcome to Ask Ada, Folks’ bi-weekly advice column for people impacted by health issues or disability. Want Ada to help you with a problem? Email Ada at askada@pillpack.com or tag @folksstories on Twitter with the #askada hashtag.

My Mom Is Isolating Herself After My Father’s Death

Hi Ada,

My father died around six months ago. Although his death was not unexpected, it took a huge toll on all of us, but especially my mother.

My mother has always kept to herself, but lately, she’s been completely isolated. She sees my brother, sister-in-law, and their son (her grandson) fairly often, and she talks to me on the phone, but I’m worried about her. She doesn’t have anyone else to talk to, she doesn’t have many hobbies, and she doesn’t have a strong community. When we talk, her affect seems flatter. Yet, she tells me she’s happy living alone and enjoys keeping to herself.

I’m worried she’s developed major social anxiety and won’t leave her house because of that. How do I help her?

-Arielle

Hi Arielle,

There’s two ways of looking at this. First, your mother says she is happy keeping her own company. If she has always been introverted and avoided social affairs, then she’s likely coping as to be expected. As you well know, grief has no set trajectory, so one moment she may be fine and enjoying the quiet of her home and the next she’ll exhibit normal signs of grief, such low energy and a flatter affect.

However, if the isolation began to manifest after your father passed away, you may have something to worry about. You’ve already picked up on a few changes, so continue to be on the lookout for signs that she’s really distancing herself from the outside world.

Grief has no set trajectory.

Has she stopped shopping and instead gets food or groceries delivered? Does she cancel doctor appointments or other commitments? Has she stopped going to church or an activity she once enjoyed? Does she seem afraid to drive or visit enclosed places, like a mall, or wide open spaces, like a park? These changes in her life and behavior tend to point to something more serious, such as anxiety, depression, or even potentially agoraphobia.

Now is an important time to increase communication with your mother. And you don’t have to do it all alone. Call in backup. Enlist your brother and his family to help. Teach her how to video chat, so she can see your face during your regular chats. Suggest your brother initiate a weekly family dinner, so your mom has access to others at least once a week.

I know you said she doesn’t have a strong community, but any positive social interaction will help at this point. If she’s religious, she may enjoy a house call from a priest or church leader.  Contact friends of hers and your fathers and encourage them to check in on her. You don’t have to make a big deal about it to them if you’re concerned your mother would be upset by your meddling — just mention that you want her to socialize a little more now that she’s alone, and you’d love for them to keep in touch with her.

If she is truly avoiding the outside world and becoming recluse, the best thing you can do to help her is to encourage her to talk to a therapist and calmly attempt to get her out of her home. The more isolation she has, the more her social phobia is encouraged. Get her outside, even if it’s in her backyard or for a short walk in her neighborhood. Attend appointments with her as a support who will ease her anxieties of being alone.

It may even be a good idea to dedicate a space to your father, such as a park bench or a brick in a new building. This will give her a special place to honor his memory and extra initiative to spend time out of her home.

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

Should I Tell My Daughter About My Cancer Diagnosis?

Hi Ada,

I’m lucky to exist in a teeny tiny family. It’s just me, my husband, our eleven year old daughter and both of our parents. There are no aunts, uncles or cousins, so we’re all extremely close. Well, that’s how it was last year. Almost a year ago we lost my mother and my father-in-law to late stage cancers. It was extremely sudden and they both deteriorated quickly and almost at the same time. My daughter was devastated. She went from being a vibrant little girl to a quiet, anxious one.

Here’s the problem. I just found out that my biopsies were abnormal. I have skin cancer now. It isn’t advanced, and my doctor seems very hopeful, but everything I read online scares me. I’m terrified how my daughter will react. Should I keep this from her and only tell her if treatment progresses and things get more serious? If not, how do I tell her? I’m afraid this will crush her.

Sincerely, Small Family Mom

Dear Mom —

I’m so sorry for everything you’ve experienced — and will experience — in this immensely turbulent year of your life.

I’m not sure this question has a straightforward answer. You know your daughter best, and I have limited information about her here to go on. But based simply on how she handled the death of her grandparents, my advice would be to temporarily hold off from telling her about your cancer, until you ascertain how serious treatment is going to be. My instinct is that if you only need a little outpatient surgery to treat your skin cancer, and if your oncologist doesn’t believe this incident to be much more than a blip, you’re better off sparing your daughter an unnecessary emotional trauma.

If you decide to tell her about your diagnosis, the key thing to focus on is making sure you present the information in a manner which she’s able to understand. Be calm, explain what’s happening, and tell her that you have a plan for how you’ll treat it. Reassure her that your diagnosis won’t have the same outcome as her grandparents. Then, continue to check in with her to monitor how she’s processing the news. By presenting the information in a calm, confident, and unconcerned manner, you’re projecting that everyone is safe and everything will be okay, even if you may not feel that way on the inside.

Most importantly, explain to her that nothing she did caused this.

And most importantly, explain to her that nothing she did caused this. Children often blame themselves or feel guilty after learning their parent—one of the most important people in their world—has something wrong with them, like cancer. Her world has already been turned upside down with the loss of her grandparents, and news like this may make her lose her footing.

If you haven’t already done so, find a counselor that can help your child work through her losses and process your diagnosis—if you do choose to tell her. It doesn’t matter if she is three or thirteen, the loss of integral loved ones at such an early age is something very difficult to cope with, and she likely doesn’t have the skills to do it on her own.


Are you facing a problem that is being complicated by a health condition or disability? Folks’ advice columnist Erin Ollila wants to help. Email askada@pillpack.com and tell us your problem.

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