Talking With Teens About Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2019

Teenagers often respond differently than younger children or adults to a family member’s cancer diagnosis. They may need more information or more time to sort through their feelings. A teen’s parents or primary guardian should lead the discussion about a family member’s cancer diagnosis.

Tips for talking with your teenagers

Although teens typically seek more independence, they still look to you for support and reassurance. Here are some tips to help talk with your teens about cancer:

  • Gently share most of the facts about your or a family member’s cancer diagnosis and treatment plan. Being honest is important to maintaining trust.

  • Choose a quiet spot to talk. And allow enough time for your teen to understand the information and ask questions.

  • Consider sharing information in multiple conversations. It may take them time to process all of the feelings that arise.

  • Ask them if they understand the information you have shared and if they have questions.

  • Take time to understand their questions and provide gentle and honest answers. But do not feel that all questions need to be answered right away.

  • Try to keep routines consistent. But prepare them for what will change.

  • Ask for help, but avoid giving them too much responsibility. Sometimes teenagers may try to take on too many responsibilities, which may lead to increased stress.

  • Ask specific questions about your teen’s feelings, such as “What is it like for you when I'm gone on Tuesdays for treatment?”

  • Avoid general questions, such as “How are you?”

  • Watch for changes in your teen’s behavior that mean they could need additional support to help them cope. This can include:

    • Changes in academic performance or a loss of interest in school

    • Withdrawal from friends or over-involvement with friends

    • Mood changes, such as extreme anxiety or constant sadness

    • Drug or alcohol use

  • Remember that if your teen does not communicate much with you, they may seek support from friends or other adults. This may include grandparents or coaches.

  • Consider recommending a support group for your teen.

  • Remember to laugh with your teen and show affection, even if they act embarrassed about it.

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 teens.

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

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

  • Ask how and when you can help provide support for the teens in your family.

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

Related Resources

How Cancer Affects Family Life

Parenting While Living With Cancer


More Information

CancerCare: Children