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Talking to Your Children About Your Cancer Diagnosis

5 min read

Talking to Your Children About Your Cancer Diagnosis

By: Jennifer Cashwell, FNP-BC

When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, one of the first considerations is, “What do I tell my children?” 

It is normal to want to protect children from difficult news. However, it is probably best to address the situation sooner rather than later. Children are very perceptive and likely have already picked up that something is going on. Sharing information early can make them feel valued and help maintain trust.

Conversation Tips for Parents Who Are Newly Diagnosed with Cancer

No matter the child's age, a parent's cancer diagnosis is a significant event in their lives. While you don't have to reassure adult children in the same way as you do younger kids, there will still be questions. And age doesn't change the fact that your children will worry about about you. Once you've told them what's going on you'll be able to address many different aspects of how your life will be different for a while, and how it will be the same. 

Tips for Talking to Your Children of Any Age about Cancer

  • Older children and adult children may have more questions. Answer them honestly to the best of your ability. It is all right if you do not have all the answers. Assure them that you will try to get the answers and get back to them. If you're talking with your adult child, you may want to offer to let them listen in at a future appointment so they can ask questions. 
  • Let your children help you. Even young children can fetch a glass of water.  Adult children and teens can help around the house—for example, cleaning, mowing the lawn, and cooking meals or even with driving you places, running errands and just making life easier for you. Most likely they want to help so don't be afraid to ask! 

Tips for Talking to Younger Children or Teens about a Cancer Diagnosis

  • You don’t have to discuss everything at once. Younger children especially have shorter attention spans, and several conversations over time will usually work better.
  • Encourage your children to bring their questions and fears to you. You do not need to explain beyond their questions.
  • Younger children may want reassurance that their basic needs will continue to be met. Assure them that there are plans in place for getting them to and from school and activities. For example, maybe a grandparent will be helping.
  • Young children also may worry that cancer is contagious. Reassure them that cancer is not contagious and it is safe to hug and snuggle.
  • Teenagers may worry about how the situation will affect their future. For example, will they still be able to afford to go to college?
It's important to remind your children that their number one job is still to be children. It is normal, and they should be encouraged, to continue to attend activities, hang out with friends, laugh, and have fun, even when someone in their family is going through cancer. 

Talking about Your Cancer Treatments with Your Children

  • It is a good idea to prepare your children for side effects that you may experience from treatment; for example, nausea and vomiting, and hair loss. Remind them that these side effects are from the strong medicine you are receiving to fight the cancer, not from the illness itself. 
  • Children may ask if you are going to die. You can explain that some people die from cancer, but lots of people do not. Give examples of treatments you will receive that will help get rid of the cancer (strong medicine, surgery, radiation therapy). Explain that you are doing everything you can to get better. 

Showing Emotion About Your Cancer Diagnosis

Crying and expressing sadness is okay and demonstrates to children that these are acceptable ways to cope. If your children become upset, tell them that it is okay to be upset and that the diagnosis upsets you as well. Tell them that your care team is doing everything possible to take care of you and that you are doing everything that you can to get better. 

No matter the age of your children, let them know that their feelings are normal and that their needs will continue to be met. Encourage them to express their feelings. Having frequent conversations will help your children feel more secure, and allowing them to help you will make them feel like they are part of the healing process.

Comprehensive Patient Resources are Available at Virginia Oncology Associates

Virginia Oncology Associates has a great Social Work team who can assist with connecting cancer patients and loved ones with appropriate community resources such as counseling, educational programming, and camps. The oncology social workers at VOA are Roshonda Poole, CDP, MSW; Kelli Bailey, MSW, and Megan Fortner, BSW, MA. Please consult with your cancer treatment team to let them know if you would like a referral to our Social Work team.

Additional Resources for Parents Newly Diagnosed with Cancer

  1. has an informative web page about talking to children when a loved one has cancer. 

  2. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has a wonderful page for parents about talking to their children about cancer.

  3. Camps and support groups for parents with cancer and their family:
    • Camp Kesem—several local Virginia chapters; a week-long camp for children ages 5-16 designed for children who have lost a parent to cancer, have a parent undergoing cancer treatment, or whose parent is a cancer survivor. Camp is free of charge.

    • Bon Secours Kidz’NGrief—a program for grieving children and teens who have lost a loved one or close friend to cancer. The group meets twice monthly in Newport News. They also sponsor an annual weekend camp for grieving children (Mikey’s Camp) in November. The program serves children ages 3-24 as well as the parents/guardians who bring them, and is free of charge.

  4. Books:
    • Illustrated book for children facing a loved one’s cancer, reading age 5-7 years:
      Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings 
      By Ellen McVicker (2006)

    • Book for adults helping children:
      How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness
      By Kathleen McCue, MA, CCLS, and Ron Bonn
      St. Martin’s Griffin; New York, New York (2011)

    • Illustrated book for children, reading age 3-5 years:
      Cancer Hates Kisses
      By Jessica Reid Sliwerski and Mika Song
      Dial Books: New York, New York (2017)


A special thank you to Megan Fortner, BSW, MA, for her contributions to this blog.