Talking With Your Child About Their Cancer

Getting a cancer diagnosis for your child is terrifying. The fear you likely feel is not for yourself, but for your child. Will he or she live? For how long? And how will you help him cope with the physical and emotional journey that he will have to endure in the coming weeks, months, or possible years?

The good news is that cancer survival rates have improved dramatically over the years. New, better treatments have led to better outcomes. Today, more than 80% of children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer survive for at least 5 years after their diagnosis. And while treatments are not usually described as pleasant, they are certainly far more bearable than ever before.

Path to improved well being

As parents, you want to protect your child. Keeping his or her cancer diagnosis a secret may feel like the best option. But a child with cancer needs to know what’s wrong. In fact, not telling him or her may make it worse.

Kids sense when something is wrong. This can make them feel stressed, scared and anxious. If you ignore what’s really going on or try to play it off like it’s nothing, your child might imagine the worst in his head. Or he might find out from someone else. Honesty builds trust. He needs to know he can rely on you to tell him the truth.

The initial discussion won’t be easy. But it is crucial. Your facial expressions and tone of voice are as important as what you say.

When talking about the cancer, keep your child’s age and developmental level in mind. If your child is young, start with simple words and concrete concepts. Don’t overwhelm him or her with details. Give them bits of information, in a way they can understand and process. “You have a lump in your arm that’s making you sick.” “Your blood is not working right and the doctors need to try to fix it.” Don’t be afraid to use the word cancer. They’ll hear it over and over.

Teenagers, on the other hand, can understand a lot more. Their greatest concern may be how it’s going to affect their lives. Will they still be able to hang out with their friends? Will they still be able to go to the homecoming dance? Will their hair fall out? Discuss their fears so you can bring them to the health care team to address.

Encourage your child to ask questions, even if he or she may be afraid to. They may have heard things about cancer from other people or on television. Ask what they’ve heard and answer questions as best you can. If you don’t know the answer, be honest. “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out and let you know.” Then speak to your child’s health care providers for help.

Encourage your child to share their feelings. And you do the same. They need to know they’re never alone in this. You are right there alongside them, always.

Young or older, your child needs to know that nothing he or she did caused the cancer. Nobody, not even doctors, know why one child gets cancer over another. What they do know is that cancer is not caused by anything your child did, and cancer is not contagious.

Things to consider

The process, what you say, and how you say it, will differ depending on the age and maturity level of your child. Here are some things to keep in mind to make the process more bearable.

With young children

While you don’t have to give a young child every detail about an upcoming procedure, don’t lie and say it won’t hurt if it might. You don’t want your child to be surprised during any medical procedure. And you want to keep your child’s trust. If you say something won’t hurt and it does, they won’t believe you the next time. Be honest. “This may pinch a little, but it will help you feel better.”

 Young children may have difficulty understanding the terms doctors and others are using around them. Explain in clear, simple language. “Chemotherapy is a medicine that will help get rid of the cancer.” “Oncologist is the special doctor who helps you get rid of the cancer.”

Abstract concepts are difficult for young children to grasp. They need things explained in concrete terms. Ask your child’s doctor if your child can touch models, machines, or supplies that will be used during his procedures. Children often feel out of control during this time, so try to put some control back in your child’s hands. Let him choose the flavor of medicine or the color of the chair he gets to sit in.

With older children

Teens are already self-conscious about their bodies, and they value their privacy. Being completely dependent on others—even their parents— to take care of them can be upsetting. Do your best to give your child some space. And include him or her in any decisions concerning treatment, etc.

Teens may also be resentful if they’re missing school and social events. See if their friends can bring books and homework to help them keep up with schoolwork and stay connected.

When to speak to your doctor

There’s no right or wrong way to respond to a cancer diagnosis. Kids’ reactions will range from demure to downright angry. Younger children may not be able to put their feelings into words, so they’ll act out or revert to behavior they had when they were younger.

Different reactions are normal and expected. But sometimes, extreme emotions can indicate a more serious problem. Professional help is sometimes necessary. Speak to your child’s doctor if your child:

  • Feels sad all the time.
  • Cannot be comforted.
  • Talks about hurting himself or others.
  • Becomes very angry quickly.
  • Has a significant drop in grades, appetite, or energy.
  • Shows no interest in activities he one loved.
  • Has trouble eating or sleeping.
  • Has trouble concentrating.