Talking to your children about cancer


Talking to your children about your cancer diagnosis isn’t an easy conversation. But being open and up-front about your cancer will go a long way in helping your child navigate the situation.

Sadly, almost 3 million children and adolescents in the United States have a parent who has or once had cancer. While these conversations are happening in households every day, there is no single right way to talk about it.

According to the American Cancer Society, the important thing is that your conversation provides your children with the basic information:

  • The type of cancer you have
  • Which body part or parts it affects
  • What you’re doing to treat the cancer
  • How your cancer diagnosis will affect their day-to-day lives

To get you started, here are some tips on how to prepare, what to say and what you should expect:

Prepare to talk to your kids about cancer

Before jumping into a serious discussion like this one, take time to think through the details. If possible, plan to talk to your children with a spouse, partner or other trusted adult at your side and walk through the conversation with that person as many times as needed. Other things to consider include:

  • Your child’s age: Children age 3 and older should know about your diagnosis. If you have kids of drastically different ages, think about talking to them separately. That way you can tailor the conversation to their developmental level.
  • When to tell them: A cancer diagnosis will likely leave you overwhelmed and emotional. Wait until you can talk to your kids calmly but make sure to tell them before they sense that something is wrong.
  • Where to have the talk: Choose a space that is familiar to your child and where there will be no interruptions. Your child should feel comfortable enough to cry, yell or otherwise react without restriction.
  • Unexpected reactions: Every child reacts to this type of information in a different way. A younger child may candidly ask about death, while older kids may react with embarrassment, anger or disinterest. Remember that your child’s initial reaction may not be a true representation of his or her feelings.

Create an open environment to discuss cancer

Be honest and open about your cancer from the beginning – it will benefit your children in the long run. According to the American Cancer Society, kids who are told what is happening from the start tend to be less anxious than children whose parents avoid answering questions.

Encourage your kids to ask questions but know that older kids may require some space and will come to you when they’re ready to talk. Children can usually sense when the adults in their lives are stressed, anxious or “not right.” The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) says that creating an environment where your kids feel free to ask questions will help them cope and reduce the risk of long-term emotional distress.

Use simple but accurate language to explain cancer and its treatment

When telling your child about your diagnosis, it’s important to use the word “cancer” even for children as young as 3. For younger kids, using the proper name, instead of more general terms like “boo-boo” or “sickness,” will differentiate your cancer from experiences the child may have. For older children, the proper vocabulary will help them learn more about your specific cancer.

When explaining your treatment plan, be reassuring but don’t make promises you cannot keep. Let them know that most treatment has side effects and what they can expect, such as less energy, hair loss or nausea.

Set expectations for living with cancer

Living with cancer can be stressful for the whole family. During times of uncertainty, children benefit from consistent routines and boundaries. Let them know that you still expect them to follow family rules and take care of their responsibilities, such as schoolwork and household chores.

Assure your kids that you will deliver important information throughout your treatment. That way if your treatment schedule changes or friends and family step in to help, your children won’t be caught off-guard.

Watch for signs of distress

How your children cope with your cancer diagnosis will vary depending on their age, personality, development and personal relationship with you. Keep an eye out for behavior that is out of character and lasts for more than a couple of weeks. The American Cancer Society suggests seeking outside support from a pediatrician or counselor if your child:

  • Admits to thinking of hurting himself or herself
  • Cannot be comforted
  • Displays or talks about feeling angry, sad or upset all the time
  • Has appetite changes or low energy
  • Is not sleeping
  • Withdraws or isolates himself or herself

If you’re concerned about how your child is coping with your cancer diagnosis, reach out to your child’s primary care provider.