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How to talk to kids about cancer

Published April 15th, 2024

At PHM, we advocate for a family-centered approach to care. Alongside our highly skilled advanced practice clinicians, PhD-led research scientists, and expert coordinators, we offer the support of Certified Child Life Specialists in-house. These specialists assist our clients in having difficult conversations with their children following a new cancer diagnosis and prepare them for what emotional or behavioral reactions they can expect.

Statistics show that 25% of oncology patients have young children, emphasizing the importance of providing support to parents on how to communicate their diagnosis with their children. We understand the challenge of these conversations and the instinctual desire to protect children from the worry or fear linked to a parent’s illness.

Our Child Life Specialists provide valuable guidance to parents, tailored to the developmental stage and personality of their children. Through education and access to resources, we empower our clients to approach these conversations with honesty and compassion. Ultimately, our aim is to foster effective coping mechanisms, alleviate anxiety, and reduce fear by involving children in discussions about their parent’s cancer diagnosis.

Ways to communicate with your child about cancer

Find a safe space, free of distractions.
Use a calm, reassuring voice. Remember that it is okay to become sad. Showing emotion allows children to see that it is okay for them to express their emotions too and helps offer them ways to cope by watching you.

Give concrete, accurate, age-appropriate information about cancer.

Don’t be afraid to use the word “cancer.” It is important to say the word cancer to differentiate it from other viruses that kids are familiar with and can catch. If you use vague words like “sick” they may confuse what is going on as the flu or a common cold. If you do not talk to your kids about cancer, they may invent their own explanations, which can be even scarier than the facts. Writing down what you want to say beforehand can be helpful.

Answer any questions as accurately as possible.

Consider their age and prior experience with a serious illness in the family. If you do not know the answer to a question, do not worry. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know. I will try to find out the answer and let you know.” Being honest does not necessarily mean “tell them everything”, it means not telling them a lie. It is more important to include them in the conversation than to know the answer to everything and reminding them that “If anything changes, I will let you know.”

Provide reassurance they didn’t cause and can’t catch cancer.

Explain to them that no matter how they have been behaving or what they have been thinking, they did not do anything to cause the cancer. Let your children know that they cannot “catch” cancer like they can catch a cold.

Let them know they can turn to other members of your support system.

Involve your community. These people could include your spouse or partner, relatives, friends, clergy, teachers, coaches, and members of your health care team. Let your children know that they can ask questions of the adults they feel safe with and talk to them about their feelings.

Explain the treatment plan and how it will impact them.

Prepare your children for any physical changes you might go through during treatment (for instance, hair loss, fatigue, or weight loss). Let your children know that their needs will continue to be taken care of (for example, “Mom will take you to soccer practice instead of Dad for a while.”)

Allow participation in care.

You know your child best, and the ways in which they like to help. Allow them to feel involved and empowered by giving them age-appropriate tasks such as bringing you a glass of water or an extra blanket.

Validate feelings.

Share with them that they can express any feelings, even those that are uncomfortable or feel scary. Let them know that it is also okay to say, “I don’t feel like talking right now.”

Reassure your children that they will be cared for no matter what.

Children will often have concerns over who will take care of them should something happen to their sick parent. Reassure them that there will always be someone to look after them.

Remember the 5 C’s

  • Say it’s cancer.
  • Tell your kids, “You didn’t cause it. You can’t catch it. You can’t control it.”
  • Also, tell your kids that you can still spend quality time together, participate in care, still be a kid and have fun.

This guide, along with additional resources to help talk to kids about cancer, is available to download.

About the Author

Megan Graham, MS, CCLS

Vice President, Research Operations

Megan leads PHM's department of multidisciplinary research scientists. She holds a dual MS with a research background in Neuroscience and Neuroimaging and is certified by the Association of Child Life Professionals and actively serves as a Child Life Specialist.