Talking To Your Children About Your Cancer Diagnosis

The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: June 27, 2003

Talking to your children about your cancer is very important because they will sense something is wrong and possibly imagine a worse situation. Also, if they hear about your cancer from someone else, they may be angry and not trust you when you do talk to them about it.

What should your child be told?

  • The name of the disease. Use the word 'cancer' because they will hear others use the word.
  • Where it is. "The cancer is in ?my breast,?.my blood etc"
  • How the cancer will be treated.
  • What will happen during treatment. 'I will lose my hair.' 'I will get tired.'
  • How the children's daily lives will change. For example, who will cook their meals or drive them to soccer practice.

What other things should you reassure your child about?

  • The children did not do or say anything to cause your cancer.
  • Cancer is not contagious. You can't catch it or give it to someone else.
  • It is okay for them to have strong feelings, such as anger or fear about your cancer.
  • You will do your best to keep things as normal as possible for them.
  • People with cancer don't always die from it.
  • You will let them know about any new information that comes up about your cancer.

How do I tell different aged children?

  • Young children (up to 8 years) do not need a lot of detailed information. Reassure them they will be safe and loved.
  • Older school age (8-12 years) can cope with more information. They usually worry about how the illness affects them socially. You commonly see anger before sadness and they try to cover up feelings in front of friends.
  • An adolescent is able to understand the significance of serious illness and the permanence of death. They may stay close to the sick parent or withdraw and show little emotion. Try to limit how much you increase their responsibilities and continue to maintain as much of their routine as possible.

What are some things you should not do?

  • Do not lie, even if the truth is difficult.
  • Do not trouble them with frightening medical details or financial worries.
  • Do not make promises you can't keep.
  • Do not be scared to say: 'I don't know.'
  • Do not pressure children to talk if they don't want to.
  • Do not keep secrets.

What other things help children cope?

  • If possible, have you or another consistent adult, spend regular one-on-one time with each child.
  • Keep each child's routine as normal as possible.
  • Encourage questions.
  • Give children permission to express any feelings.

Are there typical reactions I should look for?

  • Reactions depend on the age of the child and their personality.
  • Children usually express their feelings by their behavior.
  • Children may 'regress' or act younger when they are under stress.
  • Your child may have problems paying attention at school.
  • Let their teachers and guidance counselor know so they can help your child.

What if my child asks if I am going to die?

  • The answer depends on how you understand your cancer and its diagnosis.
  • The most important worry for children is who will look after them. You need to assure them that no matter what happens, they will be cared for.
  • Tell them you are doing everything you can to get better. Reassure them that you will be honest with them along the way and that when they have concerns, they should talk to you.

How do I help my child get ready for hospital visits?

  • Let your child know ahead of time what they will see and hear.
  • Let younger children bring toys to play with.
  • Bring another adult so that your child can leave early if they want to.
  • Provide cards, drawings, etc. when visits are not possible.

If you have any questions about talking to your children about your cancer diagnosis or need additional information, ask your doctor or nurse. Please let your doctor or nurse know if you would like information on other topics.

Further Reading

When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children. Dr. Wendy Schessel Harpham; practical advice along with a companion book for the children entitled Becky and the Worry Cup

How to Help a Child Through a Parent's Serious Illness. Kathleen McCue

Helping Children Understand: A Guide For a Parent With Cancer and Children With Cancer in the Family: Dealing With Diagnosis. Call your local American Cancer Society. 1-800-ACS-2345

When Someone In Your Family Has Cancer. NIH Publication Call 1-800-4-Cancer

It Helps to Have Friends When Mum or Dad Has Cancer. American Cancer Society. Call 1-800-ACS-2345

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