How to Tell Your Children You Have Cancer

Telling your child that you have cancer may be one of the most difficult conversations that you will have as a parent. We instinctively try to protect our children from things that could hurt them or their feelings. When diagnosed with cancer, parents may try to protect their children by not telling them, but it may do more harm than good. What is the best way to tell your child that you have cancer? Should you not tell your child?

mother hugging young sons
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How to Tell Your Child

  • Wait Until You Have All of the Details. Don't assume your child knows what cancer is just because they may have heard it on television or the media. Before you tell your child that you have cancer, experts recommend waiting until you have as much information about your type of cancer, treatment, and prognosis as possible. This way you will be able to address questions that your child may have about your cancer diagnosis. Children understand best when they can see the whole picture, not just little pieces. If you have a lot of knowledge about cancer and your treatment, you will appear more confident to your child. When you are confident, this makes them feel more secure, which is essential for children faced with a crisis.
  • Don't Assume Your Child Knows What Cancer Is. Children hear the term cancer in the media and on television, but still may not exactly know what cancer is and how it affects the body. Older children may think they know, but they probably have an inaccurate idea of what cancer is. Explain the physical process of how cancer develops in a simplified version that is age-appropriate.
  • Let Them Know Cancer Is Not Contagious.  It's also important for them to know that your disease is not contagious, and they can't catch it from you like catching a cold. That may be the only kind of disease they are familiar with, and you will need to explain that not all diseases are spread from person to person.
  • Make the Conversation Age Appropriate. Medical terms confuse adults, let alone children. Discussing a serious condition will also have an emotional component. You may want to seek the wisdom of a child psychologist, pediatrician, or clergy to be ready to discuss it in terms your child can understand.
  • Don't Be Alarmed If It Is a One-Sided Conversation. Your child may be quiet and not ask any questions during your initial conversation. This is completely normal and is their way of processing the information you have just presented them. Do not push them to reveal their feelings, but reiterate that they can talk to you and ask questions anytime they need to. Sometimes it is easier for children to discuss their emotions with someone other than a parent. School psychologists, the clergy, and trusted friends and family are people who kids can open up to about your diagnosis.

Common Questions Children May Have

Children may ask questions that may be difficult to answer if you are not prepared. There may be questions that you do not have the answer to, but do not be afraid to say, "I don't know." Some common questions that your child may ask include:

  • Are you going to die?
  • Will I get cancer too when I grow up?
  • Will your hair fall out?
  • Do I have to tell my friends?
  • Who will take care of me if you can't?
  • Why did you get cancer?
  • If something happens to you, what happens to me?
  • When will your cancer go away?

Get Help If Your Child Is Not Coping Well or too Well

If it appears that your child is not coping well, do not hesitate to get him help through your pediatrician. He can recommend a child psychologist or family therapist who has experience in helping children cope with cancer. Common signs of coping issues include being quiet and withdrawn and, surprisingly, hyperactivity. They may also have trouble concentrating at school or misbehave in class. These are all signs that they are having trouble coping and need help. Keep in mind that it is normal for children to "act out" their emotions, but still need professional guidance to help them cope.

Be on the lookout if your child is coping too well. Children who appear to be taking it all in stride can be masking their emotions. Again, this is also common, and children who are exhibiting this type of behavior also need help.

Choosing Not to Tell

Some parents choose not to tell their children about their cancer diagnosis. This is a personal decision and one that should not be made without research and deep thought.

Children are clever and intuitive, picking up on clues that something is not right within the family. By not telling them, it may lead to undue anxiety and fear. Children thrive on emotional stability and if they suspect that something is being kept from them, then they feel insecure.

Many parents who choose not to tell their children, do so because their prognosis is good. Why burden the child when there is no need to? However, you have to take into consideration the what-ifs:

What If Your Health Takes a Turn for the Worse? How will you explain that you are suddenly very sick to your child? This may leave little time for them to adjust and cope with the changes that are occurring quickly in the family. Ultimately, in this scenario, not telling them may do more emotional harm than protecting them.

What if They Find Out You Have Cancer? This is a common issue when people withhold information about their cancer diagnosis to their children. Children may find out through eavesdropping or perhaps, another adult may accidentally tell them about your cancer, or even through "snooping." Feelings of rejection and mistrust may be the result and are difficult emotions for a child.

Some parents do not tell their children because it is such a difficult, heart-wrenching task. Please don't let this prevent you from making the right decision. If you cannot tell your children, enlist the help of a trusted friend, family member, or member of the clergy. Together, you can all sit down and discuss your cancer and what changes the child can expect because of it.

By Lisa Fayed
Lisa Fayed is a freelance medical writer, cancer educator and patient advocate.