How Do I Tell My Child I Have Cancer?

Learning you have cancer is challenging. And the thought of having to tell your child about your cancer diagnosis can be devastating.

Key takeaways:
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    Talking to your child about your cancer diagnosis can be emotionally challenging and scary. But letting them be part of your journey can help build confidence and a sense of inclusion.
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    Take the time to understand your diagnosis and treatment, then practice what you will tell your child.
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    Keep the conversation age-appropriate and use terms that they’ll understand. Be truthful and hopeful, and ask a trusted loved one to be part of the conversation.
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    Look for ways to help your child cope, like sticking to a routine, allowing them to help, and reminding them that you love them.
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    Watch for behaviors that may mean your child needs extra support. Your child’s school counselor or pediatrician can help.

You may be concerned about your child’s reaction to the news and how it will affect them. Besides, deciding if to tell and what to tell children about cancer is difficult. Read on to learn more about how to prepare for the cancer conversation with your child and ways to help them cope.

Should I tell my child I have cancer?

Most parents naturally want to protect their children from distressing news. You may consider keeping your cancer diagnosis a secret from your child out of concern for their mental well-being.

While this is a valid concern, remember that children are observant. They’ll sense something is wrong and are likely to find out or learn about your diagnosis by listening to other people talk. Children who don’t know the truth tend to imagine the worst and draw the wrong conclusions. They may become anxious if they suspect something is being kept from them.

Moreover, it may be difficult to hide the side effects of cancer treatment from your kids. Preparing your son or daughter for the expected changes ahead of time allows them time to process the information, ask questions, and cope.

As a parent, you know your children best, and the decision to tell or not to tell them is yours. If having a cancer conversation with your child is scary, you’re not alone. Get the help of a trusted loved one who may also serve as an additional resource for your child. Your cancer care team may also connect you with a counselor who can help with the process.

Common questions parents ask about the cancer conversation

1. My son is 6. How do I explain cancer to him?

A 6-year-old may be able to understand a basic explanation of cancer. Use the term cancer in your conversation and use simple terms to explain it. For example, you can describe cancer as “bad cells” and tell him where in your body you have cancer. Reassure him that cancer is not his fault and that you can’t spread it to anyone.

If your treatment plan involves chemotherapy, you can tell him that the doctors will give you a strong medicine to get rid of the cancer cells and that this medicine may make you feel sick some days. Try to explain how you may not be able to take him to sports practice those days and who will take him instead. Be prepared to answer many questions but be mindful that children react differently.

2. What should I tell my 11-year-old daughter about my cancer?

Children, at this age, may have already heard about cancer from their friends at school or on social media. You may explain your cancer diagnosis to your daughter in greater detail but use terms she understands. Be honest with your answers. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” but you’ll find out the answer from your cancer care team for both of you.

If your treatment will affect her routine, devise a plan that works for both of you. Pay attention to behavior changes, reassure her, and encourage her to come to you with questions and concerns. Offer her an additional resource – like a trusted family member or a counselor – that she can turn to if you’re unavailable. It’s also okay to express sadness but model good coping strategies that she can use.

3. My teenager may have a hard time with my cancer diagnosis. What should I do?

When talking to your teen, be open and honest to maintain trust. If they have a strong emotional response to the news, try to encourage them to share their feelings, but don’t push. Allow them time to process their emotions. Remind them that you’re available to answer questions or help find the answers together.

Let them help around the house but avoid giving them too many responsibilities. Observe for changes in your teenager’s behavior and seek support from a health professional like a social worker or counselor. Consider a support group where your teenager can connect with other teens affected by their parent’s cancer diagnosis.

4. What strategies can I use to tell my child about my diagnosis?

A good starting point is to prepare yourself. You may want to wait until you have as much information about your diagnosis as possible, but don’t wait too long. Practice what you will tell your child. Get emotional support, if possible, by asking an adult you trust to be part of the conversation. Consider your child’s age when you decide how much detail to share.

Choose the right place and time. This may be your living room or another area of your house. Avoid starting the conversation right before other commitments so you’ll have enough time to be available for your child.

Try to be calm as you talk with your child, but expressing your emotions is perfectly okay. Encourage your child to ask questions and to share their feelings too. Talk about your treatment, expected side effects, and how it might affect their routine. Be realistic but be hopeful.

During the conversation, go at your child’s pace. Pause, and look for cues that they may have enough information. But don’t forget to keep the conversation going – plan to share more details over time.

5. What if my child asks, “are you going to die”?

This question comes up often, and it’s one you want to be prepared to answer. You may start by telling your child that cancer is a serious illness. But now, the plan is to work to get rid of the cancer cells.

Reassure them that there are many kinds of cancer and that not everyone dies from cancer. Avoid using terms like “pass away” or “sleep forever” to prevent confusion and needless anxiety.

Tips to help your child cope when you go through cancer treatment

  • Avoid disrupting your child’s routine as much as possible. For instance, try to keep the same bedtimes.
  • Prepare them that changes may need to happen, and you’ll give them as much notice as possible.
  • Include your child in decisions and give them choices.
  • Create a shared calendar of cancer treatment and non-cancer activities to keep them informed.
  • Let them maintain their after-school activities – get help from family and friends for rides.
  • Encourage your child to journal – they can express their worries when they write.
  • Allow them to help around the house.
  • Encourage fun activities and time with their friends.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about what’s going on at home – if you and your child are comfortable.
  • Remind your child that you love them.
  • Communicate with them as often as possible.

When to get help

Children react differently to a cancer diagnosis. Your son may have strong emotions, but your daughter may appear disinterested. Many children can cope with their parent’s sickness without significant problems. But some children may need more support.

Watch for behaviors that may mean your child is not coping well, and seek the help of a health professional. For example, if your child:

  • Is withdrawn or appears sad all the time.
  • Is unusually hyperactive or appears to be coping too well.
  • Shows signs of disruptive behavior or separation anxiety.
  • Shows regressive behavior like bedwetting or temper tantrums that last a long time.
  • Develops a change in school performance.
  • Exhibits sleep disruption or trouble concentrating.
  • Talks about death or suicide repeatedly or try to hurt themselves.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor at your child’s school. Your child’s pediatrician is also a good resource. Your cancer care team can connect you with a social worker or counselor.

As concerned as you may be about overloading your child with the cancer conversation, talking with them about your diagnosis can help build trust and good coping skills. If you choose not to tell, your child will likely learn about your diagnosis from another source and may come up with incorrect information. Keep the conversation age-appropriate and use strategies to make it less challenging. Remember that help is available.

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