The Other Big C: Talking to Your CHILD about Cancer

April marks the importance of being cancer aware, and if you are like most people, cancer may already have touched your life – whether within your immediate or extended family, workplace or community.

“Two in five Canadians will develop cancer and one in four will die of the disease.” Canadian Cancer Statistics, 2015

I’m Bonnie Hobbs, a social worker with Eastern Health’s Regional Medicine Program. I want take this opportunity to tell you more about my professional practice as well as the passion that drives me to help parents who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Bonnie Hobbs, hematology social worker, Regional Medicine Program of Eastern Health

The family unit

In my line of work, and validated through research, the increasing trends of the incidence of cancer significantly impact the entire family unit. Not only is it vital to understand and have an awareness of the disease, its signs and symptoms, but it is also critical – as a researcher, practitioner and most importantly a parent – to dissect, understand and be prepared to address the issues families may face.

With cancer rates increasing, I’ve seen more patients that are parents to young children. This involves additional implications for the patient and the family unit.” Bonnie Hobbs

When it comes to children being on the receiver’s end, understanding their responses to a cancer diagnosis can be very complex and barriers to fully grasping the impacts cancer can have on the family life can be wide-ranging. That is why a key area of interest in my research continues to be helping prepare parents after having received a cancer diagnosis to speak to their children about it.

Following my dreams

I studied social work at Memorial University of Newfoundland, graduating with my Bachelor of Social Work degree in 2006. Following graduation, my career path as a social worker started with Child, Youth and Family Services where my key focus was to gain experience in working with individuals and families in the community.

By 2010, I started gaining experience as a social worker in acute care hospitals in St. John’s where I worked at the Dr. Leonard A. Miller Centre with patients who have experienced spinal cord and head injuries and are receiving rehabilitation.

However, it was working on 4 North A (4NA) in oncology and hematology (cancer care) at the Health Sciences Centre that changed my life both personally and professionally – this is where patients and their families who have been affected by cancer began enriching my life during the most difficult and challenging times in their lives. Some examples of very difficult periods in a patient’s cancer journey may be when they receive a cancer diagnosis; when they receive chemotherapy, radiation, or are going to be assessed for or are undergoing an allogeneic or autogenous stem cell transplant; or when patients are approaching near end-of-life.

Within my first few months of working on 4NA, I very quickly identified a need to help parents break the devastating news of a cancer diagnosis to their young children. I observed that there were very few tools available to parents on how to give the right information, attention and support to help their little ones cope with the changes cancer will bring.

As such, following Eastern Health’s holistic, patient (client) and family-centred model of care, and as a mother of two young boys, my interests grew deeper to really help families better digest and deal with a cancer diagnosis. Inspired by the patients I serve each day, and with the tremendous support of my family, I then made the decision to continue higher education and received my Master of Social Work degree in October 2016

My contributions to enhancing patient and family-centred care

While on my Master’s degree pathway, my research topic was Parenting with Cancer, Explaining the Cancer Diagnosis, which focused on explaining a parental cancer diagnosis to children from birth to adolescence. Although my research touched on several themes, a very important one elaborated on a parent’s instinct to “protect” their children by not telling them about the cancer diagnosis. My research, therefore, highlights the importance of parents being open and honest with their children about their cancer diagnosis, and that education on the topic must play a larger role in families and in health care.

Bonnie Hobbs, hematology social worker, meeting with a patient

The Five W’s

In addition to my research contributions, and with the support of my mentor, Dr. Mike Devine, I have written a book that now serves as a good resource for patients and their families to use when they have been faced with a cancer diagnosis. My book, Parenting with Cancer, Explaining the Diagnosis, was made possible with support from the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Care Foundation. It offers many helpful tips, including the Five W’s – a series of questions that help prepare parents for the difficult conversation they are about to have with their children. In my experience, many parents find it helpful to practice or write the answers to these questions down before initiating the discussion.

The Five W’s are guiding questions that help parents who have been diagnosed with cancer prepare to speak with their children. Courtesy of Parenting with Cancer, Explaining the Diagnosis, a book by Bonnie Hobbs.

“I believe that with appropriate resources provided by a health-care team, combined with information provided on the value of talking to children about a parental cancer diagnosis, it may minimize the concerns a parent may have in talking to their child, and ultimately more positively influence a child’s coping mechanisms.”  Bonnie Hobbs

My promise

Marking April as Cancer Awareness Month is yet another reminder for myself as a social work practitioner to carry out my long-term goal, which is to continue appreciating the gift of working closely with amazing patients and families each day. My hope is to continue creating awareness on this important topic of parents talking to their children about a cancer diagnosis, as well as to educate health-care professionals across the country to encourage parents to do so.

This month, remember those whose lives have been touched by cancer and share this article by using #CancerAwareness.


This story was written by Bonnie Hobbs, hematology social worker with Eastern Health’s Regional Medicine Program.

3 responses to “The Other Big C: Talking to Your CHILD about Cancer

  1. Bonnie, congratulations on your accomplishments and the wonderful work you have taken on. Your care, compassion and devotion to such vulnerable people dealing with this challenge must be so rewarding to you, as well as to your clients and patients. Best of luck in your endeavours.

  2. Telling my children about my cancer diagnosis was, with the exception of the chemo itself, the most difficult part of the journey. Even with a strong educational background in child and family support, the words were difficult to find. I will never forget their heart wrenching response. In hindsight, I wish there had been a social worker there with me to help us all cope with the news. The book is a great idea. But I also feel that with every diagnosis, a social worker should be sent home with the family to share the news.

  3. Bonnie…. Barry & I just want to congratulate you on your accomplishments!! We will never forget our extended family on 4NA & how good & supportive each & everyone of you were to Dennis, Barry & myself of Aug. 2013. Thanks for everything Bonnie you were so helpful with all our questions & concerns. Keep up the good work!!!

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