Talking To Your Children About Your Cancer Diagnosis
Last Modified: December 12, 2012
Talking to your children about your cancer is very important because they will sense something is wrong and possibly imagine a worse situation. Also, if they hear about your cancer from someone else, they may be angry and not trust you when you do talk to them about it.
What should your child be told?
- What information you provide must be age appropriate.
- Parents should be comfortable themselves before engaging in this discussion.
- Use the word 'cancer' because they will hear others use the word.
- Where it is. "The cancer is in "my breast," "my blood", etc.
- How the cancer will be treated.
- What will happen during treatment - 'I will lose my hair.' 'I will get tired.'
- How the children's daily lives will change. For example, who will cook their meals or drive them to soccer practice.
- Ask the child how much or what they understand and what they want to know. Ask if there is anything they do not want to know or are afraid of hearing.
What other things should you reassure your child about?
- The children did not do or say anything to cause your cancer.
- Cancer is not contagious. You can't catch it or give it to someone else.
- It is okay for them to have strong feelings, such as anger or fear about your cancer.
- You will do your best to keep things as normal as possible for them.
- People with cancer don't always die from it.
- You will let them know about any new information that comes up about your cancer.
How do I tell different aged children?
- Young children (up to 8 years) do not need a lot of detailed information. Reassure them they will be safe and loved.
- Older school age (8-12 years) can cope with more information. They usually worry about how the illness affects them socially. You commonly see anger before sadness and they try to cover up feelings in front of friends.
- An adolescent is able to understand the significance of serious illness and the permanence of death. They may stay close to the sick parent or withdraw and show little emotion. Try to limit how much you increase their responsibilities and continue to maintain as much of their routine as possible.
What are some things you should not do?
- Do not lie, even if the truth is difficult.
- Do not trouble them with frightening medical details or financial worries.
- Do not make promises you can't keep.
- Do not be scared to say: 'I don't know.'
- Do not pressure children to talk if they don't want to.
- Do not keep secrets.
Involving the School
- It is important to tell teachers and administrators what is going on with the parent.
- Cancer diagnosis and treatment can impact children's performance & behavior in the classroom.
- Get help from school staff (guidance counselors, teachers, etc.) to support the child.
- Include coordinators of any other activities the child is involved in - sports, scouts, extracurricular activities.
What other things help children cope?
- If possible, have you or another consistent adult, spend regular one-on-one time with each child.
- Keep each child's routine as normal as possible.
- Encourage questions.
- Give children permission to express any feelings.
Are there typical reactions I should look for?
- Reactions depend on the age of the child and their personality.
- Children usually express their feelings by their behavior.
- Children may 'regress' or act younger when they are under stress.
- Your child may have problems paying attention at school.
What if my child asks if I am going to die?
- The answer depends on how you understand your cancer and its diagnosis.
- The most important worry for children is who will look after them. You need to assure them that no matter what happens, they will be cared for.
- Tell them you are doing everything you can to get better. Reassure them that you will be honest with them along the way and that when they have concerns, they should talk to you.
- If the prognosis is poor, think about leaving a legacy through movies, letters or cards for future important events.
How do I help my child get ready for hospital visits?
- Let your child know ahead of time what they will see and hear.
- Let younger children bring toys to play with.
- Bring another adult so that your child can leave early if they want to.
- Provide cards, drawings, etc. when visits are not possible.
Camp Kesem is a national program with local summer camps throughout the country. This is a great opportunity for your kids to get away with other kids who have "been there", while still having professional supports.
If you have any questions about talking to your children about your cancer diagnosis or need additional information, ask your doctor or nurse. Please let your doctor or nurse know if you would like information on other topics.
Helpful resources from Cancer Care
Helping Children When a Family Member has Cancer from the American Cancer Society. 1-800-ACS-2345
When Your Parent has Cancer: A Guide for Teens from the NIH
When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens from the NIH
Kids Konnected provides friendship, understanding, education and support for kids and teens who have a parent with cancer or have lost a parent with cancer.
When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children. Book by Dr. Wendy Schessel Harpham. (copyright 2004).
Frequently Asked Questions
National Cancer Institute