How to Talk to Kids About Cancer

Community // April 4, 2018

Opening up about a cancer diagnosis to loved ones is an exceptionally difficult experience, especially when trying to talk to your children. Whether it’s explaining your own diagnosis, your partner’s or a grandparent’s, the situation can feel overwhelming and be difficult to approach. There is no perfect way to have these types of conversations. But no matter the child’s age, it’s important for them to be in the know and have the opportunity to ask questions and prepare for what may happen in the future.

Why You Should Talk to Your Kids About Cancer

For some, they may think it’s easier to keep their children in the dark about a cancer diagnosis, especially when facing a more aggressive cancer like mesothelioma. It may feel like the right thing to do to try to spare your children from the pain and uncertainty that come with the disease. But the intention to spare your child and hide the truth can do more harm than good in the long run.

Health professionals recommend talking to your children about the diagnosis as soon as possible, rather than trying to hide it. Secrets have a way of coming up in unexpected and worse situations. For instance, what if your child overhears talks about the cancer from a family friend or someone else? This type of discovery could not only harm the trust you have built throughout your relationship with your child, but could also make the diagnosis out to be that much more terrible and scary.

No matter how old your child is, they will realize something is going on and likely assume the worst. If you can share the news with them early on, they can have a more clear and full picture of what is going on and what to expect. This will also ensure your child is understanding of what you or another loved one is facing before seeing the toll of any physical side effects, like hair loss or fatigue. Though they of course will still go through many emotions facing such harsh news, opening a dialogue will ensure your child knows they can turn to you throughout the journey.

By starting the conversation, you’re helping to bring your family together and face this difficult time as one.

How to Talk about the Cancer Diagnosis

Depending on how old your child is, there will be different questions and concerns that arise from these types of conversations. For instance, younger children may wonder if the cancer is contagious or if they somehow did something that caused such a diagnosis, while older children will be better aware of what a cancer diagnosis means and may be more curious about the logistics like the treatment plan and prognosis.

Again, there is no one “correct” way to broach this topic with your kids. But organizations like the American Cancer Society recommend taking some time to digest the information yourself first. Facing your own diagnosis or knowing a family member has cancer is a lot to cope with, so it might be easier to have such a difficult conversation when you’re feeling more calm and in control of your own emotions. Waiting for a quiet time to have this talk is also much better than blurting it out while your child is playing or distracted by something else going on.

Though the conversation doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be scripted, it may be helpful to plan out some of the things you want to say and how you want to explain the diagnosis to your kids. It’s important to think about the best way to explain the cancer in a thorough, thoughtful way that each child will understand, while also preparing for some of the questions they may have. Be sure to tell children the truth, while being mindful of their different ages and considering how they may handle the information.

The American Cancer Society suggests at least covering the following basics with your children, regardless of their age:

  • The type of cancer
  • The location of the cancer
  • How it will be treated
  • How the diagnosis will impact their everyday lives

Especially for young children who rely on their parents for caregiving, it’s important to open a line of communication and reiterate that they are in no way to blame. Health professionals note young children are more apt to blame themselves, thinking they caused or could have somehow prevented a parent’s or family member’s cancer. Teenagers can feel guilty too, so parents should be conscientious of reassuring their children throughout the conversation.

By being positive and encouraging, and expressing your desire to have a continued dialogue, your children can feel more comfortable about this harsh situation and be able to express their concerns in a healthy way with you.

Supporting Each Other

Ultimately, having such tough conversations will help your family stick together through any situation, including a serious cancer diagnosis. One of the most important aspects of fighting cancer is having a good support system to rely on, whether it’s the larger cancer support community or smaller support groups with other cancer patients, survivors and family members. Talk to your social worker and health care team about what support services might be available to you and your loved ones.

Most importantly, support each other. Talking to children about cancer is surely a difficult conversation, but can be a good beginning to the start of this new journey. With everyone on the same page and an open channel to ask questions about cancer treatment or even talk about more normal things like who will take your child to after-school activities when dad is at an appointment, everyone can adjust to this new normal with more ease.