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Know how to speak with your children when diagnosed with cancer

The National Institutes of Health estimate that 2.85 million US children under the age of 18 are currently living with a parent who has been diagnosed with cancer. Researchers estimate that nearly 562,000 of these children are living with a parent who is in the early phases of cancer treatment and recovery. Talking about cancer can be a tough topic no matter who you are talking to. But how do you explain it to children? Here are some suggestions for talking to your children about cancer.


Do make communicating with your children a priority

Children tend to imagine the worst. Developmentally, they also tend to believe the world revolves around them. Without talking to children honestly about a loved one who has cancer, the kids may believe that they are the cause of the cancer or feel responsible for it. That’s why it’s critical to make communicating with your children a priority to help avoid as much emotional stress as possible.

Do start the conversation with asking what the children think has been going on

Your kids have probably noticed changes in your routine, such as increased phone calls and doctor appointments. One of the children we worked with mentioned that she knew something was going on just by looking at the mail. Your children know you and they can tell when you are worried or off of your game. Starting the conversation by asking them what they think has been going on provides an opportunity to calm their worries.

Do be honest about your cancer experience and treatment

If your children ask a question that you cannot answer, it is okay to tell them that you don’t know but that you will find the answer and share with them. Talk to your doctor, nurse or care team to get the answers. And don’t be afraid to ask them any questions that you may have as well.

Do encourage your children to express their feelings and share your feelings with them

Let your children know that it is alright for them to talk to important people in their life about your cancer. Let them know that while you or your loved one’s health has changed, your love for them has not. Help your children identify options for dealing with their emotions in a healthy way.

Do give age-appropriate information about your cancer

Talk about where the cancer is in your body and use the word “cancer.” Explain to your children that cancer is not contagious, and they cannot “catch” cancer like a cold. If your children are older, then they may want to know more about the treatment process, alternative treatment methods, etc. It is OK to share with them all that you can so that they can help support you and will also understand what is happening.

Do let children help

Give children opportunities to help you clean around the house, with dinner preparation or with the dishes. Your doctor or a program like CLIMB, Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery, can offer age-appropriate support to help your children cope throughout the entire treatment process.


Do not forget that your children’s thoughts on cancer may be different than your own

Once you have disclosed that you or a loved one has cancer, you can ask your kids to let you know what they believe they know about cancer. This again provides the opportunity to clarify misconceptions before getting into too much detail. Your child’s thoughts on cancer will be based on their exposure – so it may be different than your own beliefs and what is happening in actuality.

Do not think you have to have all of the answers

Cancer is a complicated and individualized disease. There are many treatment options and how it affects one person may be very different than how it affects someone else. It’s okay to admit to your children that you don’t know all the answers. Plan to find out from your doctor, nurse or care team what you can and share the answers with your children.

Do not forget that they have access to the internet

Older children and teens may turn to the web for additional information. It is important to help them find reliable resources and remind them that much of the information online is generalized. Clarify what your treatments and prognosis are. And feel free to do research with them.

Do not feel like you are the only parent/grandparent dealing with this issue

There was the growing need for a program that helped parents, grandparents and children deal with the emotional, behavioral, and social challenges that cancer may bring. A great program that does this is CLIMB (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery). CLIMB activities include forms of art therapy, such as mask decorating, and group processing sessions for the children as well as adult group sessions. All of the activities and discussions that occur as part of CLIMB are focused on helping the kids work through their emotions, and offers them a chance to build community with other kids.

CLIMB activities provide a chance for the children to be with other kids who are going through the same thing. The teens usually end up exchanging phone numbers and social media information. It is important that they have somebody they can identify with and connect with later on.

Also, search for local support groups for your children and yourself to help cope with the emotional turmoil that cancer can bring with it. Doing a simple “cancer support group” search online in your local area will help you and your family find support. Ask your doctor about organizations and groups as well.

Do not avoid talking about cancer

It is important to not avoid the subject of cancer. Check with your children’s school for support through teachers and counselors. Also, talk with your neighbors or members of your church to provide help with taking your kids to their activities or other assistance as needed.

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Cancer can be a scary disease, but talking with your kids up front and being honest about your treatments will help them better deal with the situation. Consider this advice and don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

More expert advice about Cancer

Photo Credits: Kacso Sandor/; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Lindsay Rehm, RN, BSN OCNOncology nurse and education specialist

Lindsay has been an oncology nurse for almost 14 years; seven of those years at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa. In addition, she has been a CLIMB facilitator for more than four years. Lindsay has been married for 10 years and has t...

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