Talking to Kids about Cancer

A cancer diagnosis doesn’t just affect the patient: it has a profound effect on the entire family. Adults have years of experience and basic knowledge of cancer that can help give them perspective, but the ideas of cancer and especially mortality can be very difficult for children to grasp. If your family is dealing with the recent news of a cancer diagnosis, you may be wondering how to discuss this topic with children. Here are some tips that you can use to guide your discussions.

Setting the proper tone is key to helping a child deal with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Though you may feel anxious, hopeless or even panicked, it’s important to maintain a calm and level tone and a reassuring voice when you discuss this topic with your child.

Give your child the facts. Explain what the disease is doing inside your loved one’s body in simple terms that your child can understand, but don’t dumb it down so much that your child feels his intelligence has been insulted. Also take time to explain cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy and the physical changes that may take place. Don’t be afraid to use the word “cancer”. Keep in mind that if there are gaps in your child’s knowledge about cancer, they may invent their own explanations for what’s happening and these thoughts can be incorrect and very frightening.

Give accurate answers to your child’s questions. Keep things age-appropriate, but give your child as much knowledge as you can about the topic. If he or she asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, it’s ok to say that you don’t know. If this happens, assure your child that you will find the answer to that question and pass it on to them.

When talking to a child about cancer, it’s often helpful to practice what you will say to your child beforehand so that you feel prepared and more comfortable. During this conversation, take the time to honor the emotions your child is expressing and to reassure him or her as much as possible. Hold hands or offer lots of hugs so that he or she feels comforted and supported. Keep in mind that this won’t be the only conversation you will have about this topic—children will continue to have questions and express emotions throughout the treatment process and you need to be ready for that. The most important thing you can do for your child in this difficult time is to show them (not just tell them) that you are there to act as a support.

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