Talking to your children about cancer


Even though it’s hard, being honest and open with your children about cancer is the best way to help them cope. Young people want to be told the truth, even if it’s difficult news for you to share and for them to hear.

Secrecy often makes things worse and only adds to your stress. In contrast, being honest about what’s happening helps young people to adapt and shows them that you trust and value them.

Telling your children you have cancer

Telling your children you have cancer is probably one of the most difficult things you'll ever have to do. Your instinct might be to keep the news from them altogether or delay telling them, but young people quickly work out that something is wrong.

Tackling that first cancer conversation might seem overwhelming, but here are some tips that other parents have found helpful:

  • Make sure you’re ready (or as ready as you can be)
  • Think about what and how you’re going to tell them
  • Use simple language and avoid medical jargon
  • Try not to overload them with too much detail
  • Build on what’s worked for you in the past when you’ve handled bad news or talked about difficult issues like drugs or sex
  • Start with questions. For example, “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. What do you know about cancer?”.
    This will help you adjust your explanations to their level and correct any misunderstandings.

How you explain what cancer is and the type of information you give your children will depend on their age, how much they can understand and what they want to know.

The key things your children need to know are:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • the treatment(s) you will have, and how long it will take
  • the sort of side effects you might experience such as weight changes, tiredness, hair loss
  • the other ways cancer might affect you, such as not being able to work
  • how your cancer is going to affect them and your family life, for example
  • changes to routines or extra responsibilities they may have to take on at home
  • that you will keep them informed and let them know about any changes
  • that your cancer has nothing to do with anything they did, said or thought

For more information, check out our Parenting through cancer booklet.

For a full list of Parenting through Cancer resources click here
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