Talking to Your Children about Your Cancer

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, the biggest concern for many patients is how to tell their children.

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, the biggest concern for many patients is how to tell their children. This is never an easy conversation, and it’s normal to want to protect your kids from things that will worry them. But not telling them about your cancer can cause them even greater distress. 

Children are very perceptive and can sense when their parents are under stress or something serious is happening within their family. They are bound to overhear pieces of conversations and phone calls, and they may imagine even worse situations. Often, children blame themselves when they feel something is wrong.

Talking honestly with your children gives them an opportunity to express their fears and helps relieve their feelings of guilt. Pick a place where you are not likely to be interrupted and allow enough time for your kids to ask questions. Practicing what you are going to say ahead of time may make you feel more comfortable. Just remember that you don’t have to find the ”perfect” words or cover everything all at once. What your children really want and need is a truthful explanation of what is causing your distress. Click here for some helpful tips.

You might begin by explaining that our bodies are made up trillions of living cells. Normally, the cells grow, divide and die in an orderly fashion. Cancer starts when cells in a part of the body start to grow out of control and can invade other parts of the body. You can point to or tell them where the cancer is in your body and explain that your doctor will be giving you medicine to stop it from growing. 

Deciding how much to tell them will depend on their ages. Younger children will require less detail than those over eight, but all children should be told the basic information, such as:

  • The name of the cancer, such as breast cancer or lymphoma
  • The part of the body where the cancer is
  • How it will be treated
  • How their own lives will be affected

That last bullet is a big concern for children of all ages. Assure them that even though you may not be able to spend as much time with them during your treatment, you love them and will make sure they are taken care of. Try to give examples, like who will take them to school or soccer practice. They will feel more confident knowing arrangements are being made for them.

Because feelings of fear and guilt are common among kids of all ages, it’s important for you to address issues they might be afraid to mention. Let them know they did not cause this cancer. Nothing one person thinks, wishes, says, does or doesn’t do can cause another person to get cancer. Assure them that people can't catch cancer like a cold or the flu, so it's OK to hug or kiss someone with cancer. Most importantly, remind them they are loved and that your family will work through this together.

Here's a list books and articles recommended by the University of Michigan to help you talk with your children about cancer.

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