Talking to children about cancer

Telling children and teenagers about your cancer can be daunting. But, as a parent, you know your child best. You’ll understand their reactions and know what support they need.

Being honest, specific and using simple language is usually a good approach. What they’ll need to know and how they'll react will depend on their age. Drawings or books may help younger children understand, while you may need to encourage teenagers to ask questions.

Tell children the name of the cancer, where it is in your body and how it'll be treated. Reassure them that nothing they did caused the cancer and there will always be someone there to look after them. Asking open questions can encourage children to express their feelings and guide the conversation.

Consider who else needs to know. It may be useful for teachers, other parents or nursery staff to be aware of the situation. With teenagers, it’s usually best to talk this through with them first. If you’re concerned about how your child is coping, ask your cancer doctor or nurse for advice about counselling or psychological services.

Explaining your treatment to children

Knowing about your treatment and its side effects can prepare your child for what to expect. It can also help them feel less anxious.

Treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be described by their purpose – to remove, destroy or slow the growth of cancer cells. Try to explain the possible effects of these treatments on your usual routines, or how you look or feel. For example, telling children about changes to physical appearance in advance may help them adjust.

Side effects are often an expected part of treatment. But, if they see you looking unwell, some children may think your cancer is coming back. Reassure them that these effects will gradually fade after treatment and they don’t mean you’re getting worse.

After treatment, prepare your children to expect that it may take time for your energy to return to normal. Try involving them in things you’re doing to help your recovery, such as exercising or eating and sleeping well.  Let them know how they helped you feel better.

Coping day-to-day

Every family is different. Many factors will affect how your children experience the day-to-day changes that cancer can bring. Sharing your feelings about these changes, even crying in front of them, is one important way to cope. It can help children to learn it’s ok to have and show difficult feelings.

Your normal everyday routine may be disrupted. Being consistent and sticking to your usual family rules where possible can help. Young children often depend on routine, so explain any new plans such as who will be looking after them or picking them up. Letting teenagers help out can make them feel involved, but try to make sure they don’t take on too much.

Protect quality time with your family. Try switching off your phone at mealtimes or asking people to text rather than phone at certain times of the day. Don’t be afraid to accept offers of help. Other parents, or trusted friends, or relatives may be willing to lend a hand with things you usually do. This can free up extra time with your children.

Spending time with your children

Spending quality time with your children is important. But treatment, hospital stays or side effects can make this more difficult. There are simple ways to share positive experiences with your children, even if you’re busy or recovering from treatment.

If you need to stay in hospital, find ways to keep in touch. Arrange a regular time to phone home, give them a photo to keep, or send a card, letter or email. Younger children may enjoy being read a story over the phone.

Prepare your children for things they'll see while visiting hospital, like tubes or medical devices. If teenagers want to join you in appointments, it may be helpful to let them. Understanding how the treatment process works can be reassuring.

Family activities at home don’t have to be expensive. Just spending time with your children will be appreciated. Watching TV and playing cards or board games can be good options if you don’t have much energy. Ask your children to show you what they’ve been doing at school or go out for a short walk. Drawing pictures or writing stories about family life may help younger children express their feelings.

Last updated:
03 February 2023

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