How to Talk to Kids About Cancer

Family Discussion

If you have children, you’re probably concerned about how much to tell them about your diagnosis and what you are going through. Here are some tips for communicating with your children:

  • Set the tone. As important as what you say is how you say it. Use a calm, reassuring voice, even if you become sad. This will help your children see how you are trying to cope and will help them do the same.
  • Give your children accurate, age-appropriate information about cancer. Don’t be afraid to use the word “cancer.” Tell or show them where the cancer is on your body.  Remember that if you don’t talk to your kids about cancer, they may invent their own explanations.
  • Explain the treatment plan and how it will affect their lives. Prepare your children for any physical changes you might go through during treatment (hair loss, extreme tiredness, or weight loss). Let your children know that their needs will continue to be taken care of (for example, “Daddy will take you to soccer practice instead of Mom for a while.”)
  • Answer your children’s questions as accurately as possible. Take into account their age and prior experience with serious illness in the family. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know. I will try to find out the answer and let you know.”
  • Reassure your children. Explain to them that no matter how they have been behaving or what they’ve been thinking, they did not do anything to cause the cancer. Make sure they know they cannot “catch” cancer like they can catch a cold.
  • Let them know they can rely on other members of your support system. These people include your spouse or partner, relatives, friends, clergy, teachers, coaches and members of your health care team.
  • Allow your children to participate in your care. Give them age-appropriate tasks such as bringing you a glass of water or an extra blanket.
  • Encourage your children to express their feelings. Let them know they can express any feelings, even those that are uncomfortable. Let them know it’s ok not to feel like talking about it.
  • Reassure your children that they will be cared for. If you can’t always provide the care directly, their needs are important and will be taken care of.
  • As always, show your children a lot of love and affection. Let them know that although things are hard now, your love for them has not changed.  Sometimes, you may not know what to say. This is okay. Remember that you are the expert on your children. Having cancer doesn’t change the fact that you know your children best.