Talking With Children About Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2019

If a family member has cancer, children often sense that something is wrong. Or they may overhear conversations. They tend to worry more if they feel that important news is being kept from them. As a parent or guardian, you may want to protect your children from distressing news, such as cancer. But avoiding the topic may confuse children. Or it may make them fear a worst-case situation.

It is also important to remember that children share information with each other. The whole family should work together to decide what and how much to tell the children about a family member’s cancer diagnosis. This helps avoid confusing or misleading information being passed among the children.

Tips for talking with your children

A child’s parents or primary guardian should take the lead in discussing a family member’s cancer diagnosis. As you talk with your children, listen to their concerns and answer their questions to the best of your ability. Here are some tips to help you talk with your children about cancer:

Language to use

  • Use the term “cancer.” It gives your children specific information and reduces confusion and misunderstanding.

  • Use age-appropriate language to discuss cancer. Younger children need a simpler explanation. For older children, a more detailed explanation helps reduce feelings of helplessness and fear.

Topics to discuss

  • Reassure your children that they did not do anything to cause cancer in their family member.

  • Make sure they understand that cancer is not contagious.

  • Let them know that it is okay for them to have many different feelings and that you have many of the same feelings too.

  • Offer a realistic but hopeful assessment of the situation, and focus on how the cancer will be treated.

  • Let your children know that they are free to ask any questions.

  • Be honest when answering questions. It is okay to say "I don't know."

  • You may not want to tell your child every detail about the cancer. Use your judgment about what to share based on your child’s age.

  • Be prepared to discuss death with your children. Use clear, specific terms. Avoid indirect phrases such as “passing away” or “sleeping forever.” Children may confuse sleep with death. They may fear dying in their sleep or think that a person could wake up from death.

  • Consider practicing the conversation with a trusted loved one who can give you feedback on your tone and word choice. Make sure to be as calm as possible while talking to children about a cancer diagnosis.

Actions to take

  • Try to keep your children’s routines as consistent as possible. But prepare them for the things that will change.

  • Provide opportunities for your children to help. But do not burden them with too much responsibility.

Treatment-related tips

  • Talk about the types of treatment and the timeline of treatment. This also depends on your child's age and if they are old enough to understand such details.

  • Explain that the treatment may have some difficult side effects, but it is still working to help the person with cancer get better.

  • Prepare your children for possible physical changes, such as hair loss or weight changes, before they happen.

  • If you are in the hospital for an extended time, your children may think that you do not want to be at home with them. Staying in touch will help reassure them that the illness does not affect how much you love them.

Tips for continuing the conversation after the diagnosis

  • Consider meeting with a counselor. A counselor can help you address a child’s unique needs and stage of development when talking about cancer.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse about the resources available at your treatment center and in your local community.

For grandparents and other family members

It is important that parents or primary guardians take the lead in discussing a family member’s cancer diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with cancer, you may want to have follow-up discussions with your grandchildren or nieces or nephews.

Here are some important things to consider before having any discussion with your grandchildren or your nieces or nephews:

  • Ask your adult children or siblings how much they have already discussed with their children.

  • Ask if it is okay for you to have a follow-up discussion with your grandchildren or nieces or nephews.

  • Encourage your whole family to talk with each other, so that there is no confusion among the children in the family.

  • Consider sharing the above tips with your adult children or siblings.

Related Resources

How to Talk to Your Preschooler About Cancer

Parenting While Living With Cancer

Talking With Teens About Cancer

4 Keys to Raising Children While Caring for a Parent With Cancer

More Information

CancerCare: Children