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How to tell your children you've been diagnosed with cancer

Published: 02 Aug 2017

Breaking the news and having conversations about cancer with any loved one can be challenging, but telling your children that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer can be especially difficult.

Following on from our blog post about breaking your cancer news to family and close friends, we want to talk about sharing your diagnosis with your children; how, when and what to say to them when you’ve been told you have cancer.

As a parent, this isn’t a topic that is easy to discuss – far from it – and there is a fine line between giving children enough information to understand and process what is happening to you, and frightening them about what the future may hold.

However, it’s always better to be honest – don’t let your anxiety or fear of what to say, or how they may react, as an excuse to keep children uninformed about your diagnosis.  

Children are very perceptive and will not only notice the physical changes you are going through during your cancer treatment, but the emotional ones too. Not being able to understand why mom or dad is sick, and look or behave differently as a result, is way scarier than the knowledge that they are battling a serious illness.

When should I tell my kids I have cancer? 

Ultimately, it’s up to you when you break the news, but often it’s better to let them know sooner rather than later, preferably when you start cancer treatment. This way, you can explain in the best possible way what illness you have, and what may happen to you physically and emotionally - preparing them for how it may affect both your life and theirs.

Telling them as soon as possible will also remove the worry that they may overhear a conversation you are having about your illness, or that another family member or friend may let your diagnosis slip before you’ve had chance to talk to your children and explain the situation properly.

How do I pick the right moment?

There’s never a ‘good’ moment to tell your children that you have cancer, however make sure you have the conversation at a moment when there is plenty of time and privacy to have a thorough discussion.

Make sure you sit down and talk to them in a quiet room, where you can easily have an open conversation without being disturbed. This is definitely not a time when you (or they) should feel rushed or uncomfortable

What’s the best way to break my cancer diagnosis to a child?

As we have mentioned, most parents feel anxiety and/or fear about breaking the news, and how their children may react to their diagnosis - no matter what their age.

When you decide to tell them, it’s very important to do your preparation in advance. Think about what you are going to tell your children, including the words and tone of voice you want to use.

Children naturally ask a lot of questions, so think about some of the things your young ones are likely to bring up. Prepare answers for as many of the common questions you can think of – and the more challenging or random topics of conversation that may come up. Ready yourself for the fact that children sometimes want to talk about subjects that you may not find easy to discuss, such as the possibility of dying.

The age of your child or children will determine how much detail is appropriate to share with them. However, it will be easiest for you both if you keep the conversation simple to start with, and follow up with further information when they are ready to ask questions. Don’t overwhelm young ones with too much information; it’s better to break it down into multiple conversations over a few days or weeks, to make sure your diagnosis fully sinks in. 

Explain what is happening to your body in plain, simple language; don’t confuse your kids with complex medical language. You may even need to repeat important information to younger children, to make sure they fully understand what you are saying. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to use the word ‘cancer’ when talking to children, but it’s always better to discuss the term openly than use a euphemism to describe it. Use simple science to explain what cancer is – for example, when certain cells in the body grow faster than others – to make the term meaningful and therefore less frightening.

Most importantly, keep checking back with your children during the conversation, to ensure that everything you’ve said so far makes sense to them. Let them know that it’s OK to ask questions, and correct any misunderstandings they have about the disease, or what happens to people who are diagnosed with cancer.

How will my children react to my cancer diagnosis? 

Every child is different; some will be immediately upset, others will dwell on the news for a few days until it has fully sunk in. Prepare yourself for their physical and emotional needs.

Children tend to react primitively; they may fling themselves on you for a reassuring hug, but equally, they may behave in a reserved or standoffish manner while they process your diagnosis. Their age and how well they understand the news will also impact how they react. 

Let them know that, whatever happens, you are still their parent and you love them very much and that will not change, even when you are ill. Additionally, reassure them that it’s OK to cry or feel scared – not just when you are breaking the news, but at any time during your treatment.

 

Is there anything else I can do to help my children? 

Some parents find it helpful to inform significant adults in their children’s lives of their diagnosis, such as their teacher or friends’ parents. 

Take school as an example. Sometimes your child appears to be holding it together at home, but the underlying stress of the situation could result in changing behavior at school or when hanging out with their friends.

If responsible adults in those situations are aware of your diagnosis and understand what’s going on, they can look out for these behavioral changes and let you know. Equally, they are likely to be more empathetic when dealing with any difficult or disciplinary situations that arise. 

Equally, your children may talk to their friends about your cancer treatment, and letting other adults in on the news can help them to explain your illness properly to other children affected by your diagnosis.

Another thing parents can do to help children is to keep a sense of normality where possible. Unless treatment gets in the way, try to stick to normal daily routines, and make sure your children keep up their regular activities and kids’ clubs. Talk to them about things other than cancer, such as how their day went or what they are doing at school, so that they don’t feel the whole world is revolving around your illness. 

Finally, make sure you have regular conversations with your kids about the progress of your treatment, and how they are feeling about living with a mom or dad who has cancer. This will help them prepare for what’s coming up, and also reassure them that they can talk to you about cancer at any time, including asking questions about how you are feeling, and sharing their own feelings – however difficult that may be. 

For more support in breaking the news of your cancer diagnosis to your children, visit the cancer.org website. There are also a number of age appropriate books available that can help you break the news in the right way.

If you are struggling to break the news, or your child is affected by your treatment, speak to your doctor or counselor about the best course of action.