Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Nana, What's Cancer?' tackles tough questions

By Leslie Wade, CNN Medical Producer
Click to play
Telling kids about cancer
  • New book was written by a grandmother-granddaughter team to answer kids' questions
  • Only a few decades ago, cancer wasn't discussed in general, much less with children
  • Children want to help and can bring comfort to a sick adult
  • The book contains helpful scientific and medical concepts for kids and adults

Watch for "Health Minute" on HLN, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ET weekdays.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- When Tess Hamermesh found out her nana had cancer, her questions were simple.

"I was only 4 years old and she explained it to me as a boo-boo on her tummy," Tess said.

Tess' nana, her grandmother Beverlye Hyman Fead, recovered from her cancer, but by the time Tess was a third-grader she had lost both a grandmother and grandfather to the disease. Tess turned to her nana for comfort and with more questions about cancer. They decided to put their conversations into a book called "Nana, What's Cancer?" published by the American Cancer Society.

Children often grapple with the same types of questions as adults, said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.

Fead remembers some of Tess' first questions.

"Well, I think that the first thing that surprised me was that she was worried about, 'Can I catch cancer?' " Fead said.

Tess also wondered whether it was OK to feel sad when someone you love has cancer and why some people got the "good" cancer and some got the "bad."

Those were hard questions that Fead tried to answer honestly. She wanted the dialogue with her granddaughter to be very different from what she experienced growing up.

I lost my grandmother, mother and two sisters to cancer and in those days it was a secret word. We didn't say it out loud very much.
--Beverlye Hyman Fead, author

"I lost my grandmother, mother and two sisters to cancer and in those days it was a secret word. We didn't say it out loud very much," Fead said.

Brawley said attitudes about cancer are changing.

"In the 1960s people used to talk about 'the C word.' We couldn't even say the word 'cancer' among adults," Brawley said.

Children were often kept in the dark as well. But Brawley said he thinks that's a mistake.

"I really believe that the way you talk to kids about cancer is to be open and honest with them," Brawley said.

Children want to help and can actually bring comfort to an adult. Tess used to write notes to Fead, bring her flowers and bake her cookies. They had movie night together and Tess would sit in Fead's lap.

"There are so many ways a child can feel as though they're helping, and there's nothing like a smile for the immune system of the sick one, that's for sure," said Fead.

She encouraged her family to have meetings to bring everyone, even the grandchildren, up to date on how she was progressing.

I really believe that the way you talk to kids about cancer is to be open and honest with them.
--Dr. Otis Brawley

"I think cancer is a family disease, and it affects everyone in the family. And especially the kids, because they might feel as though they're left out," Fead said.

Fead said she hopes her book will not only educate families about the disease but also encourage adults and children to share their worries and joys as they live with cancer.

Brawley said the book has helpful medical information for families.

"It's a great book for adults to read because it has a lot of the concepts ... the scientific and medical concepts of treatment in it," Brawley said.

It also encourages people of all ages to take care of their health.

"If we actually use books like this to encourage healthy eating habits, we're going to prevent some cancers," Brawley said.

Nearly half of all people with cancer now survive; for Fead it has been 7½ years since her most recent diagnosis. At age 75 she is doing everything she can to try to keep her cancer from returning. She exercises, eats plenty of fruits and vegetables and sees her doctor regularly. Fead said spending time with Tess has been some of her best medicine.

"Always remember to laugh and love through everything. I don't know what the outcome with me is going to be and how long ... but when and if something happens to me I will always be in her heart," Fead said.