How to Tell Your Children about Your Cancer Diagnosis

How to Tell Your Children About Your Cancer Diagnosis

After the shock of a cancer diagnosis, many people face another emotional challenge – how to share the news with their children. The following guidelines can help parents communicate to their children with sensitivity and care.

Prepare yourself

Think about the words you want to use. Remain calm, but don't be afraid to show emotion. Project confidence when conveying any positive news. If you have a spouse or partner, discuss in advance how you will explain your illness, and what information each of you will relay. If you are single, you may want a family member or friend to be with you. Their presence can bolster you and reassure your children that other adults care about them.

When to tell

Most children are intuitive and sensitive to their parents' demeanor and moods. While it is unwise to delay revealing your news for too long, you may want to wait until you have definitive information about the extent of your illness and treatment, particularly when communicating with younger children. Deliver the news at home or in an environment where your children feel safe - before you are hospitalized, if possible.

What to say

There are different ways to deliver the news, but experts agree: Be honest and keep it simple for young children. Explain that you are sick and seeing a doctor who will do everything possible to make you better. Share more details with older children. You need not divulge all the facts right away, but consider the following when having your first conversation:

  • Use the word "cancer." Euphemisms, such as "bad cells," "lump," or "boo-boo" lead to confusion and anxiety, according to child psychiatric specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital.
  • Use descriptions children understand: Ask your medical team to recommend books or literature about how to explain cancer to youngsters.
  • Consider using a doll to help demonstrate specific locations on the body. A toy might make it easier for children to absorb the news.
  • If you're not in pain, tell your children you feel fine. If you are in discomfort, explain how that affects you: "Mom wants to rest more," or "It makes Dad grumpy, like you feel when your tummy hurts."
  • Express hope. Unless you have specifically been told your time is limited, make sure they understand that having cancer does not mean you will die anytime soon. Give them examples from your own circle of family and friends, as well as popular sports figures or celebrities, such as cyclist Lance Armstrong. Explain that doctors are working hard to discover new treatments.
  • Eliminate guilt. Children should understand that it is not their fault that you are sick---that nothing they did caused your cancer. Also emphasize that they cannot "catch" cancer from you. Older children and adult offspring may be concerned about hereditary factors. Ask your doctor for more information about these issues and, if you are comfortable doing so, let the children accompany you on a physician visit so they can ask questions themselves.
  • Tell your children how much you love them. Repeat this message frequently during your first conversation and reassure them throughout your experience. 
  • Tell them how your illness will impact their lives. Explain who will take care of them if you will be hospitalized or absent at times when they normally see you. Give them details if their routine will be disrupted. For instance: "While Mom is in the hospital, grandma will stay with you." Or, "Dad won't be able to pick you up from soccer practice, but he will attend as many of your games as possible." If children are older or seem able to absorb more information, explain the side effects of  treatments you will receive: "I'm going to need a lot of sleep," or, "The medicine that helps me will make my hair fall out so I'm going to buy a wig and wear fun hats or scarves."
  • Let them know how they can help. Whether asking older children to take on specific responsibilities or suggesting that younger kids draw a card, supporting you can help them feel like they are contributing to your recovery. Some families are able to transform the experience into a positive journey and develop deeper connections with each other.
  • Ask your children how they feel about what you've told them. Listen to their fears and concerns.
  • Answer their questions to the best of your ability and don't be afraid to say you don't know or will try to find out.

Additional support

  • Explain the circumstances to teachers and other adults who interact with your children. Ask for their help in monitoring your children's emotions and reassuring them.
  • Find out whether your medical facility or community has support programs for families – specifically for children.
  • If your child doesn't seem to be coping well, consult your pediatrician or a child psychologist.
  • Some organizations provide free support to both adults and children affected by cancer. Start by visiting the American Cancer Society and CancerCare websites.