Talking to your children about cancer

Talking to your children about cancer

Talking to your children about cancer

Trying to communicate with a child or teenager has challenges of its own, and adding cancer to the mix can make things even more complex. However, we know that open communication between family members has a very positive effect on a child’s well-being. Here are some tips on talking to your children about cancer during this demanding time.

They want to know

  • Many parents fear that talking to their child about their disease will just make their child more anxious. However, avoiding the conversation can increase a child’s distress. We know that children tend to think things are much worse than they actually are, so talking about the facts can keep them from guessing the worst. Also, opening up communication will let your child know that you’re available to them to ask their questions and share their feelings. You will also send the message that talking about it isn’t going to make you or the cancer worse. 
  • This isn’t going to be a one-time conversation. It’s best to talk to your children soon after your diagnosis and on a regular basis. 

Choose your words carefully

  • Provide simple and clear explanations about your prognosis, diagnosis, and treatment. 
  • Use real terms like “chemotherapy,” not “medicine” (all children get medicine from one time or another). Also, say “I have cancer,” not “I am sick” (all children get sick from one time or another). 
  • Choose words that will let you be honest but also refrain from disturbing images. An example would be “the doctor is going to take out my tumor” versus “the doctor is going to cut my belly open.”


  • We know that talking with children about cancer is often fraught with emotion, and it’s normal to feel nervous about how it will go. Practice with your partner, friend, or an Alliance patient navigator. Practicing a difficult conversation can make you feel more at ease, which will help you send the message you intend. 

Consider your child’s emotional age

  • You know your child best. Take into consideration their emotional age and tailor your communication appropriately. Maybe you’ll read a cancer-related book with your four year old and take your “bigs” out to ice cream for a more serious talk. 
  • Ask your child to teach you about what you just told them about your diagnosis. This will help you know if they understood what you said and will allow you to correct anything they may have missed. 
  • Try not to have these conversations right before bedtime. 

Just do it!

  • Most parents feel a lot of relief after talking to their children and realize anticipating the conversations with their children is much worse than actually having the conversations. 
  • Know that setting up the expectation for regular, safe, and honest communication will serve your family well now and for years to come. 
  • It’s better for your child to hear information about your cancer directly from you than overhearing you talking about it with someone else. Children and teenagers do not want to be kept out of the loop. 
  • If your child asks you a question you didn’t anticipate them asking, give yourself some time to respond and explain that you’ll think about the answer and get back to them. You don’t have to have all the answers to have a conversation. 
  • Keep in mind that the sicker you are the more communication your child will want. 
  • What goes perfectly in parenting!? Have grace for yourself and give up on the idea that if you don’t communicate perfectly that something bad will happen. 

Encourage support outside of the family

  • Make sure kids know who they can talk to outside of the family (maybe it’s a coach, spiritual leader, an uncle, etc). Sometimes kids will ‘try out’ having conversations with others before bringing their concerns to you. 
  • Consider reaching out to the other adults in your child’s life and encourage them to provide extra special care and attention to your children at this time. 
  • Try to maintain typical peer support with friends and activities for your children when possible. 

Commit to getting support for yourself

  • Parents often feel an extra helping of guilt when they know their life circumstances are causing changes in the family. Acknowledge that your own fears and emotions are worth processing and getting support for. 
  • Keep in mind that talking to a professional can help you maintain your role as parent while also undergoing treatment for cancer. 
  • Consider connecting to another parent that ‘gets it’ through our Buddy Program.


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