Talking to Your Children about Cancer

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By Abby Henry, Oncology Content Manager, PearlPoint Cancer Support | July 2016


As a parent receiving a cancer diagnosis, one of your first thoughts may be about how to tell your children. Children are very perceptive, no matter their age. While you may wish to protect your children by not telling them about your diagnosis, even young children may be able to tell that something is wrong. Not knowing what is wrong may cause them more stress and anxiety or lead them to believe that they have done something wrong. It is important to talk to your children about your diagnosis sooner rather than later. Here are some strategies to help you with this difficult task.

Prepare what you are going to say.
When you first receive a cancer diagnosis, you will probably be very emotional. Take some time to get your emotions under control before talking with your children. You will never be 100% prepared for this conversation with your children—just like you are never prepared to hear a cancer diagnosis—and that is okay. Think about what you are going to say. Decide who will lead the conversation. Will it be you, your spouse, or a grandparent? Think about the questions they may ask so you can be prepared to answer them. Prepare your children for changes. For example, let them know you may be taking time off work or needing to rest more. If you are receiving chemotherapy, let them know you may lose your hair. Let your children know how their lives may change such as spending more nights at grandma’s house or carpooling to school with a friend so you can go to treatment.

Read a book together.
If you are finding it difficult to explain cancer to your younger children in your own words, a book could help. There are many children’s books and picture books about cancer. You can read them with your children and answer questions along the way. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the American Cancer Society offer many books on cancer for children. You can also ask your local librarian for suggestions or your child’s school librarian.

Recruit your healthcare team.
Ask your oncologist or nurse navigator what resources are available to your family. If you think it would be helpful for your older children, ask your healthcare team if you can bring your child to an appointment so your doctor or nurse can help explain. Make sure you check first before bringing your child with you in case your treatment center has any restrictions and to prepare your healthcare team.

Find a support group.
Find a support group for your children. Many places offer support groups for children and teens whose parents have a cancer diagnosis. Check with your local Cancer Support Community affiliate. Just like with adults, it may help for your children to talk to others their own age who know what they are going through.

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