How Do You Explain Cancer to Children?

April 3, 2017 | by Dory Benford

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be devastating, and explaining that diagnosis to a child adds yet another layer of stress, fear and anxiety to an already difficult situation.

Depending on their age, children may not fully understand what cancer is, but they are perceptive. They can sense when something is wrong, and this can result in fear, confusion, anxiety and even self-blame.

When it comes to talking about cancer, don’t leave your kids out of the conversation.

We asked our Facebook community for their tips on tackling such a tricky topic.

1. Explain the diagnosis in terms they can understand.

Use simple words, phrases and examples to explain you cancer diagnosis.

"We explained that 'sick' cells were just growing too fast, and those cells were taking up room that belonged to healthy cells, and the medicine and treatments were to try and stop the sick cells," a community member explained.

2. If you need help finding the right words, seek advice from your doctors and care team.

Before talking to your children, it can be helpful to seek guidance from your doctors, psychologists, social workers or teachers about how to have difficult yet effective conversations with children.

While no one knows your child better than you do, these professionals can provide direction about describing complex concepts to children in a manner they can comprehend.

"We had to explain to our daughter, who was four years old at the time, that her paternal grandmother was suffering from cancer. We spoke with her pediatrician and the day care staff. The day care staff had books that dealt with various life situations and loaned us books to read to her about death," one commenter recalled.

3. Keep them informed.

A cancer journey can take many unexpected twists and turns. Keep children up-to-date so they don’t feel left out or isolated.

"Being a two time survivor myself, I strongly advise keeping the children in the loop, with a simple but honest explanation of your circumstances. I was treated at City of Hope in 2004 for leukemia, and was in isolation much of the time. I mistakenly thought that my youngest son, who was 13 at the time, should be shielded from the unpleasant aspects of my disease and recovery," a Facebook user wrote.

"I was wrong. Dealing with the fear of the unknown was much harder on him than if I had allowed him to be more involved. Ironically, I had the opportunity for a 'do-over' last year, when I underwent surgery for a brain tumor, also at City of Hope. I made sure he was up-to-the-minute on everything that was happening, including him being in the pre-op area as I was readied for surgery. A child needs to know, regardless of their age, what is going on with Mom or Dad. Cancer is a disease that affects the whole family."

4. When explaining a cancer diagnosis, be truthful.

Several members of our community emphasized the need for adults to be transparent with children when it comes to breaking the news about a cancer diagnosis. While it’s tempting to hide the truth to spare their feelings, it’s best to keep them in the loop.

"Tell the truth and answer their questions without going into too many details...One step at a time; they will need time to process the information and, eventually, ask when everything will be okay," one commenter said.

"In telling my children, we were direct and honest but kept the terminology simple and selected language that they would understand (they were six and 11 when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma)" another Facebook user explained.

"We told them to ask any questions that they had at any time. We ALWAYS remain hopeful, positive and optimistic and assure them mom will do whatever it takes to remain happy and healthy!"

5. Answer their questions and provide comfort.

It’s natural for children to become upset or afraid during a close adult’s illness. Answer their questions to help them process what is happening, and show them love and affection to calm their fears.

"I tell my children that it's rare and try to explain that particular cancer in simple terms. I let them ask questions rather than talking too much. Validate their concerns and fears. Give hugs, and kisses. Just be there for them," a community member suggested.

Here are recommended resources to help kids cope with a family member’s diagnosis:

Hopeful.org - An online space where anyone touched by cancer can connect and learn to thrive. This is a place where patients, caregivers, friends – anyone – can come and share their life with cancer. 

National Cancer Institute: When Your Parent Has Cancer: A guide for teens - This guide is for young people who have a parent with cancer.

Cancercare.org: Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer - leading national organization providing free, professional support services and information to help people manage the emotional, practical and financial challenges of cancer.

American Cancer Society: Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer   - This series of guides offers extensive information on helping children understand and deal with cancer in another family member.

American Society of Clinical Oncology: How a Child Understands Cancer - ASCO has oncologist-approved cancer information to help patients and families make informed health care decisions.

 

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