Talking to your kids about cancer

If you have cancer, discussing it with your children may be difficult. But listening and talking to them can be reassuring, as well as helping them come to terms with your diagnosis.

'Cancer becomes less frightening for everyone if it's described as cells that have grown faster than other cells in the body'

 

Breast Cancer Care 

Keep it simple

Children may have heard things about cancer that frighten them, so speak to them honestly and simply about what you're going through. Ask them what they think cancer is and explain anything they don't know.

Be honest

Breast Cancer Care's nurse specialist for younger women advises using the word cancer from the start. "Explain it in language your children will understand. The word cancer becomes less frightening for everyone if it's described as cells that have grown faster than other cells in the body."

Create time and space to talk

A spokesperson from Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity that supports patients, suggests you choose a time and a place to talk to your children where they're most likely to listen and feel at ease and where you won't be interrupted.

Let them know they can always ask you questions and talk to you about how they feel, especially if they're sad and upset. They need to know you'll listen to their worries and help them cope.    

Reassure them

Let them know that even though you're ill, you still love and care for them. Explain how your illness might affect your moods and feelings, but that you'll always love them.

'Your children need to know that everyone's doing all they can to make you better ... that you still love and care for them'

 

Breast Cancer Care

Be clear

You don't have to tell them everything at once. Just be clear about the situation you're in. If you don't know the answer to any of their questions, say so. It might be a good idea to read about it together or ask a doctor or nurse to explain things.

Be positive with them

"Try to be honest yet hopeful, but be careful not to make promises you're not sure you can keep," says Breast Cancer Care's nurse specialist. "Most of all, your children need to know that everyone's doing all they can to make you better, that you still love and care for them, and that there are things they can do to help."

Younger children

"Young children react to being separated from you and to changes in their routine," says Macmillan's spokesperson. Ask people who your children feel safe and familiar with to help look after them or take over some of the things you usually do. Young children need consistency, so it's a good idea to have the same person helping if possible. Always try to let them know in advance about any changes to their usual routine.

"If you're in hospital, have a regular time to call home or when they can call or text you," says the spokesperson. "Make sure they have a photo of you and tell them you'll be thinking about them. Prepare them in advance for what they're likely to see when they visit you, and tell them about the different people who are there to help you." 

Children between the ages of six and 12 can understand more about the cancer and its effects on the body. Use simple, straightforward language and short sentences to explain things, and don't overload them with information.

All children need reassurance that:

  • nothing they or anyone else did or thought caused the cancer
  • cancer isn't like a cold and you can't catch it – it's OK to sit close, hug or kiss

Teenagers

"Teenagers may find it hard to talk to you or to show you how they feel, and at times their behaviour may be difficult," states Macmillan's spokesperson. 

"Help them see that talking about feelings is a positive and mature way of coping. Encourage them to talk to someone close, such as a relative or family friend. Ask them what they think and include them as you would an adult. But don't forget they still need your guidance and support, and keep the usual rules and limits."

More support

Cancer Research UK has information on talking to children, with links to useful books and leaflets. 

Macmillan also has information and advice on talking to children about your cancer.

Breast Cancer Care has resources and support about talking to children of various ages about breast cancer. The charity has produced a picture book called Mummy's lump, which can be useful for younger children.

Healthtalkonline has articles and videos of people talking about their experiences, including:

Page last reviewed: 09/12/2013

Next review due: 09/12/2015

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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

sbrandylem said on 29 May 2008

I have found this information very useful as I have just been diagnosed with breast cancer and need to explain this soon to my 7 year old son.
I have had several thoughts of how to tell him and it was good to see I was on the same lines as the guidance given.

Thank you

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