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Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.

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Building Better Communication

Communication is the sharing of information, ideas, thoughts or feelings. Communication skills are important for building healthy relationships and managing daily concerns. 

Communication Challenges During Cancer

For families facing a serious illness, communication needs can be overwhelming and exhausting.
On top of daily needs and life demands, families have to:

  • Talk and plan with the medical team
  • Learn about medicines and medical care
  • Share information and make decisions as a family
  • Stay in touch with friends and support community
  • Update schools and teachers
  • Navigate workplace, insurance and practical concerns

Families face many more communication needs during childhood cancer.  There are also added barriers: 

  • Medical information is hard to understand
  • Stress and emotions make it difficult to process and share information
  • Family members (parents, patient, and siblings) have different needs and communication styles
  • There are often distractions that make it hard to communicate well

Simple Strategies for Better Communication

To overcome common barriers, it can help to consider how people share information. At a basic level, communication involves people (the sender and recipient), a message (the information, thought, idea, or feeling), and a method (the way the information is shared). At any part of the process, a communication breakdown can occur. Some basic communication strategies may help, especially during times of stress.

Better communication: sending messages more effectively

  • Keep the message simple. Be clear and to the point.
  • Be honest. Keep communication age-appropriate, but don’t lie or hide important information. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” and find out more before answering questions.
  • Be aware of your emotions. It may even help to say what you are feeling before sharing your message.
  • Choose the best way to communicate. Think about what you need to say and what method (email, phone call, in person) is right for the situation. Let the other person know if you expect a certain response. State what you would like someone to do or say.
  • Check in to see that the other person understood. Make time for questions. This is especially important if giving instructions or talking about medical needs.
  • Follow up with another type of communication if needed. Send a reminder text or email, especially if it helps to have a record of communication.

Ways to send messages:

  • In person conversation
  • Phone call
  • Email
  • Text message
  • Social media or online community
  • Through other people

What to consider when planning communication:

  • How much time you have available
  • If you need to communicate long distance
  • Whether you need a record of communication
  • If private medical information is being shared
  • If there will be a lot of questions
  • How much emotional support is needed

Better communication: receiving and understanding information

  • Limit distractions so that you can focus. This is particularly important for medical conversations. Find a quiet place, and ask someone to watch younger children.
  • Be aware of your emotions and how they might affect how you interpret a message.
  • Take notes of important details. Keep notes and messages in the same place so you can find them when needed.
  • Ask questions, and make sure that you understand.
  • Wait before responding, especially when you are feeling emotional.

No family is prepared for the communication challenges of childhood cancer. As much as possible, be open and honest with the medical team and with one another. Talk about struggles and concerns, and ask for help. Support for communication is available from many sources including psychology, child life, social work, and spiritual care.

Reviewed: June 2018

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