Love, Always

How to talk to your kids about cancer.

“Mommy, what is cancer?”

As a parent, it’s a question that you will need to answer sooner or later.

Maybe your child will see something on TV or in a movie that piques his or her curiosity. Maybe a friend at school will mention the “C”-word. Or maybe someone in your family—you, another parent, or a grandparent—is dealing with a scary diagnosis.

You don’t want to lie to your child or avoid the question. But you don’t want to frighten your child, either. So what’s the right thing to say?

In this article, I’m sharing some general guidelines that can help you to explain what “cancer” is to your child, particularly if you—or someone else in your immediate family— are the person dealing with cancer.

Every child is unique, and every cancer scenario is unique, so these guidelines are not appropriate for every situation, but my hope is that these guidelines will provide a good starting point for you and your family.

(Always consult with a counselor, therapist, or another qualified emotional health professional if you need some personalized support.)

Babies & Toddlers (0 – 2)


What to know about this age group:

More than anything, children in this age group need familiarity—familiar routines, familiar places, familiar foods, familiar caregivers, and so on.

What to say:

At this age, you don’t need to “say” much. Babies and toddlers are often too young to grasp the concept of “cancer” or any other illness, but they are still sensitive to changes in their routine.

If you or someone in your family is dealing with cancer, try to keep your child’s usual routines in place as much as possible. Keep mealtime, cuddle time, and bedtime consistent. Make sure they’re given lots of hugs, attention and “I love you’s. Consistency and familiar routines will help them feel secure.

Kids (3-5)

What to know about this age group:

Like their younger counterparts, these young children cannot yet fully understand what it means to be ill—although 5-year-olds usually begin to have some understanding of the nature of illness.

Young kids, just like babies and toddlers, are very sensitive to changes in their routines. If someone who is usually “around” is suddenly absent, they’ll notice. If there’s a new type of tension at home (arguments, crying, etc.), they’ll notice that too.

Children in this age group sometimes regress to behaviors that they have outgrown (like bed-wetting or clinging to a parent’s leg when it’s time to go to pre-school) if the usual routines become disrupted. Try to stick to familiar routines and spend as much quality time with your child as possible.

What to say:

“When someone has cancer, a part of their body is not working properly [You can use a stuffed animal to show the child that part of the body that is not working]. There are nasty cells, called a tumor or a lump, in that part of the body that should not be there.

 

So the nasty cells must be taken out or stopped from moving to other parts of the body, so they don’t make those other parts not work either.”

 

If a parent has cancer, say:

“This cancer is not your fault. You didn’t do anything to make it happen.”

 

“You cannot catch cancer from [insert name of parent]. It’s OK to touch and hug.”

 

“[Mommy / daddy] and I love you very much and [insert name of caregiver] and I will take care of you while [mommy / daddy] is sick, but you will still spend time with [insert name of sick parent] and you can help with [insert name of sick parent’s] care.”



Be patient as you explain these things. You will probably need to repeat these explanations and reassurances multiple times. Your child may not have any questions initially, but questions may arise later. Remind your child that it’s OK to ask questions any time.

Older kids (6 – 12)

What to know about this age group:

Kids in this age group can understand what cancer is and they can handle a bit more detail about the illness. But just as with younger kids, keep your explanation simple and straightforward. Your child may be distressed that the person dealing with cancer will die, and may ask questions about that, so provide reassurance that healing is possible.

Explain to your kid that it’s OK to feel all kinds of emotions, and it’s also OK to play and have fun, just like usual. Your child’s world doesn’t have to “stop” because of this situation.

What to say:

“A lot of cancers can be cured with the right treatment. It is possible to live with cancer and not die from it.”



“You can help by keeping your grades up, following the rules (which includes doing chores to help the household run smoothly), and also having fun with your friends. It’s OK if you have sad or angry feelings about this, and it’s also OK to play, have fun, and do all of the things you usually do. You don’t need to be sad all the time.”

Teenagers (13 – 17)

What to know about this age group:

Teenagers tend to know quite a bit about cancer and understand what it means. More detailed explanations are appropriate. Be prepared to answer more detailed questions.

Some teens may take their time to digest what you’re telling them. Your teen may not share feelings or ask questions right away. Let them set the pace. If your teen enjoys writing, encourage him or her to express emotions in a private journal, or through music, poetry, drawing, or some other form of healthy expression.

Keep the lines of communication open so that your teen feels comfortable talking to you when and if they want to, and so that you can monitor how they are coping. After your teenager learns about a cancer diagnosis, watch closely for behavioral changes—like drinking, smoking, skipping classes, or the reverse: trying to over-excel, over-perform, or be “perfect.” Seek professional help for your teen and yourself, as needed.

What to say:

“I know you want to do whatever you can to help [sick person] get well, but you also need to continue on with your life, enjoy time with your friends as well, and not feel guilty about that.”

 

“We have an excellent team—doctors, family, friends—and everyone is doing their best to help [sick person] get well. Your efforts matter a lot, too. You can help out by being patient and supportive, helping out around the house to help things run smoothly, and doing your best at school.”



“It’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling right now. As time passes, you may feel all kinds of different feelings. You can talk to me anytime, if you want to. Or I can set up a meeting with a counselor if you’d prefer to talk to someone who isn’t your parent. I will also give you some books and other resources to read. I am here to support you in any way that you need.”

 

“I love you so much. I wish we didn’t have to go through this—but we’re a strong family, and we’ll be OK.”

Final thoughts:

As a parent, it can be tempting to “shield” your child from suffering, harshness and pain. But “shielding” your child is ultimately a disservice. Your role is to raise a child who is brave, empowered, and who knows that he or she can handle adversity successfully.

“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.”
—Helen Keller

Rather than shielding your child from the world, or sugarcoating the truth about life, illness, and death, focus on raising a child who is strong enough to handle anything life hurls his or her way.

Cancer is undeniably scary and distressing, but a cancer diagnosis in the family can become an opportunity for your child to grow, become stronger, develop healthy coping skills, and learn firsthand that life is a precious gift—something to be treasured, celebrated and spent wisely, not wasted.

If you are dealing with cancer or any other scary situation, I am wishing you and your family great strength. Remember that, just as your child is learning priceless life lessons and growing stronger and braver throughout this ordeal, so are you.

“There is no education like adversity.” —Disraeli

Remember, too, that it’s OK to feel any range of emotions that you might feel, and that it’s OK to seek professional support if you need a private, safe, confidential place to share your feelings.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” —Fred Rogers

Love, always.

xo.

Copyright © 2015 Dr. Suzanne Gelb. All rights reserved.