How to Talk to Your Preschooler About Cancer

April 19, 2018
Brittany Sullivan

Brittany Sullivan is a 6-time alveolar soft part sarcoma survivor who advocates for cancer research. She writes about her ongoing experience with cancer on her blog, The Sullivan Story. Listen to Brittany and John Sullivan share their story in a Conquer Cancer podcast.

I’ve had cancer 6 times throughout my life. First, as a small child, all the way to the present, as a 29-year-old mother. The hardest moments were the moments when I was contemplating how to tell my almost 3-year-old what would be happening. If a cancer diagnosis and treatment was overwhelming for me as adult, how in the world would this precious little girl take it?

The thought kept me up at night: What would I say? She’s only 3. Should I tell her at all? How much would she understand?

I didn’t trust myself to be able to look into my princess’s eyes and tell her without completely losing it. I decided to read her a book, but I couldn’t find resources for preschool-aged children. So I wrote an explanation in my own words using some of the language that had been in the books geared toward older kids. I added some doodles to the words and put the pages in a scrapbook — voila! Her own little cancer book.

Spending time writing the words and drawing the pictures helped me accept my difficult diagnosis. And this little cancer book gave my daughter a way to understand my cancer. It prepared me for the hardest moment of my cancer journey.share on twitter 

Here are a few tips to help you talk with a young child about your cancer:

1. Wait until you are emotionally ready and have been given a concrete treatment plan.

It takes time to get used to the fact that you have cancer. Days, maybe weeks, may go by before you are able to accept a diagnosis. That’s totally normal. Wait until you have had time to process your emotions and also know your treatment plan so that you can talk to your child about what to expect. 

2. Prepare for the conversation.

Plan what you are going to say when you talk to your child about cancer. Prepare a script or write down talking points. Use simple language so your child can easily understand what they are hearing. Include words he or she will overhear like “cancer,” “chemo,” “treatment,” and “radiation.” Describe these words simply and truthfully. Talk about emotions you both may feel. Practice your script and get comfortable with the words before you sit down with your child.

When describing cancer to my daughter, I said that my body was missing a puzzle piece (immune response) and that cancer was making a mess in its place (tumors and disease). I told her that cancer was a nickname for the sickness I was feeling and that treatment was the medicine I would get in the hospital to heal my cancer.

3. Come to the conversation with visuals.

Young children love visuals and picture books, so consider drawing a picture to illustrate your talking points. For example, you might draw a hospital room, yourself without hair, a surgery scar on your body, or people who will be helping with child care. You might also create a feelings chart to help your child express his or her emotions. A feelings chart uses pictures to show emotions, and the child can point to the picture that best shows how he or she feels.

4. Be hopeful and optimistic.

Your child will take cues from you, so show that you are hopeful. Give him or her a role or a job to do while you recover. Children aren’t scared of words like “cancer” or “stage IV.”  They’ve never heard them before! Our children are surprisingly strong and resilient. Let them keep being kids. Find strength and hope together. Pray together and be optimistic. Never, ever give up.