Talking to Your Kids About Cancer

Joseph Shaw Jones, MD Joseph Shaw Jones, MD
Natural Horizons
Wellness Centers
Integrative Cancer Care


Discovering that you or a close family member has cancer is a difficult and overwhelming experience. Talking to your kids about cancer can be just as challenging. As a parent, it’s natural to shield your child from anything harmful or scary. Hiding a cancer diagnosis, however, only leads to confusion and fear – sending a message to your child that cancer is too scary to discuss. Talking to your kids about cancer can be difficult, especially if you are not sure what to say or how to respond to your child’s questions. Remember, there is no “right” or “wrong” thing to say; the actual words are not as important as creating a safe space for addressing your child’s concerns and fears. Your child’s age and personality will affect how he or she responds to the news of a cancer diagnosis, as well as to changes in your family’s routine. You know your child better than anyone, and we encourage you to use this knowledge when thinking about what you will say. These five tips will help make this conversation easier for both you and your child.

Explain what your cancer diagnosis means

“Cancer” is a scary word for both children and adults. Calmly explain to your child what your cancer diagnosis means, emphasizing positive information whenever possible. For example, depending on your diagnosis, you might tell your child, “They caught my cancer early,” “The doctors and I are doing everything possible to help me get better,” or “I am fighting cancer the best that I can.”

Tell your child what to expect during cancer treatment

Help ease your child’s fears about the future by discussing what to expect. For example, you could tell a younger child that you will be visiting the doctor every week to get healthy. If you will be undergoing chemo, explain that you might lose your hair and feel tired, but this simply means the medicine is working. Discussing expectations helps children prepare.

Anticipate questions and answer honestly

Younger children may ask if they are responsible for cancer or if they can “catch it” and become sick themselves. Older children may believe unreliable or inaccurate information that they’ve heard from other friends at school, seen on TV, or found on the Internet. Being open and honest about your cancer diagnosis is the best way to clear up any misconceptions. Tell your children it’s okay for them to ask you any questions or tell you something that is bothering them. At the same time, know that it’s okay not to have all the answers. What matters most is that you create a safe space for discussion.

Be hopeful without promising the impossible

Young children may demand a solution or ask you to promise them that everything will be okay. Even older children may ask, “Are you going to die?” Be sensitive to your child’s fears by maintaining a hopeful but realistic attitude. Promising a miracle can set children up for disappointment and even create trust issues if the promised outcome does not occur. If you are religious or spiritual, you may wish to talk about God or trusting in a higher power. It’s okay to tell your children that no one knows what will happen in the future, but that it’s important to enjoy the moments you share together now. An open and honest conversation is the best way to explain a cancer diagnosis and reassure your child. You may not have all the answers, but by talking to your kids about cancer, you will create a safe space for asking questions, sharing fears, and providing the love and support that your child needs during this difficult time.

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