Talking with Kids about Cancer

A cancer diagnosis affects the whole family. If you have children, you may be wondering how to best share the news and how to cope with treatment together. According to the American Cancer Society, it is impossible to keep cancer a secret and attempting to do so may damage a relationship of trust between parents and their children. Every child is different but here are some tips for how to help your children understand what to expect. 

Sharing with Younger Kids

Children under the age of 10 will understand cancer a bit differently than kids who are older. Your instinct may be to protect them from the fear and anxiety around cancer. However, choosing to share your diagnosis will allow them to process the information with you and ask questions and express their emotions in a healthy way. Telling your child about your diagnosis will also allow them to better understand what is happening when your treatment begins, and why you may feel too tired to watch their soccer practice or when your hair begins to fall out.

When speaking with younger children, first be sure they know that they didn’t do anything to cause your illness. Talk in age appropriate terms, but without hiding side effects of your treatment or your feelings. In fact, sharing your feelings can model healthy coping skills they will use throughout this trying time.

Sharing with Older Kids

Tweens and teenagers will have a better understanding of your cancer diagnosis, which can be both helpful and harmful. They may already know a friend or classmate who has dealt with cancer in some way and this can alleviate feelings of loneliness or impending doom. Unfortunately, since older children do know more about cancer, they could be at risk for increased anxiety about your diagnosis.

When talking with tweens or teens about your diagnosis, be honest. Talk openly about your treatment plan and ask if they have any questions about it. If you don’t know an answer to their question, be honest about that too. Finally, encourage your older children to talk to their friends about their feelings as well. According to the National Cancer Institute, having teens confide in friends or trusted adults can give them a safe place to vent about their feelings in a healthy way.

Quick Tips

No matter how old your children are when you tell them about your cancer diagnosis, here are a few tips that can help everyone in the family cope together:

  • Talk openly about feelings. Let them know it is okay to feel sad, angry, or worried and that you feel that way sometimes too.
  • Make an appointment with a local family or child counselor. Find a local office that specializes in children or families and make bimonthly appointments a non-negotiable on your family calendar.
  • Make new family traditions while you are undergoing treatment. Try Friday movie nights on the couch or Tuesday game nights. If you don’t have the energy, ask your partner to make the plans.
  • Kids of all ages will want to be helpful during your treatment. Ask your little one to draw you a picture to hang on your bedroom wall or for your tween to make you a smoothie after chemo. These small gestures will make you feel better and will give your child a feeling of control over the situation.
  • Ask for help. You may not be up to your usual parenting duties during treatment and that is okay. Enlist the help of other family members and friends to pick up your kids from extracurricular activities, sit in for homework time, or even to attend the school play (and tape it for you, of course!).

Additional Resources

American Cancer Society. (2016, July 20) Why tell children that a parent has cancer. Retrieved from

National Cancer Institute. (2014, December 2) Talking to your children about cancer. Retrieved from

Haley Burress has served special populations, including seniors, cancer survivors, and adults with developmental disabilities, for more than 15 years. She strives to give family and professional caregivers, as well as patients, reliable information and realistic ways to connect with one another. She currently writes for a variety of healthcare services agencies. When she is not writing, you can find her hiking any trail with her husband, 8 year old son, and dog.

  • August 13, 2018