Educational Information

How to Tell Your Children You Have Cancer

How to Tell Your Children You Have Cancer

Learning that you have cancer, then sharing that news with friends and family can be challenging and overwhelming. The conversation is even more sensitive if you have children.

There is simply no easy way to say “I have cancer” to a child, but it is important to prepare them for what’s to come and how it might affect them. As a general rule, the younger the child, the less detail required. It is also advised to keep the conversation open and ongoing—as your health situation evolves, keep your children in the loop with updates on how you’re doing and if they should anticipate any more changes.

Approaching this difficult topic

It is essential to let your children know that you are still there for them and that they are loved. After giving yourself some time and space to process the news, find an appropriate time and place where you won’t be interrupted to start the conversation, knowing that questions might bubble up for days and weeks after.

The following tips can help you share the news of your cancer diagnosis:

  • Get the support you need. Invite a partner, family member, or close and trusted friend to provide moral support for both you and your children. They may not need to say a single word, but a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold can go a long way. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page as far as what you will discuss.
  • Be honest while keeping it simple. While it might be tempting to sugar-coat the situation for kids, it is important to share the type of cancer you have, your expected treatment regimen and how long it might last, what changes they might see in you, and how your kids’ lives will likely be impacted during this time. If you will be undergoing chemo, for example, you can let them know that you might lose your hair or feel nauseous. Avoid big medical terms, which can be scary and overwhelming, and stick to the basics, using words your kids will understand.
  • Let them know you’re in this together. It is okay to express emotions, including sadness and uncertainty, while reassuring your kids that you are doing your best and that you are still a strong team. You can also let them know when you need their help throughout cancer treatment. For instance, telling them you could use a movie night and early bedtime because you are fatigued is a good way to empower them as helpers, and may help you get the rest you need.
  • Give plenty of time and space for questions. Always try to answer their questions as honestly as possible without delivering an overwhelming amount of detail or medical jargon. Your answers might even sound like “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “I’ll get back to you.” That’s okay, too. Just be sure to follow up with them when you have an answer. This lets them know that you are always willing to consider and respond to their questions.

Finally, make sure that you continue to check in with your children throughout this process, asking how they are doing, if they have further questions, and if they need anything to help them cope. Some children may think you getting cancer is their fault or blame themselves; you can reassure them that this is definitely not the case, and look into potential support groups for children whose parents have cancer.

Just as you express your feelings, you can encourage your children to regularly share their thoughts and emotions, even the negative or scary ones.

What to say

It may be helpful to practice aloud what you will say when approaching the topic of cancer with young children. You can put the following statements into your own words as your share your news with your kids. These phrases can be altered and expanded based on the age and developmental level of your children as well.

“I have something called cancer. That means I am sick. But I am doing everything I can to get better.”

“Mommy is sick, but the doctors are helping me get better. We’ll get through this together.”

“While I’m sick, I might act a little bit different than normal, but it’s still me, and I still love you.”

“There might be some days that I feel sad, and I might even cry. That’s because I’m tired or frustrated, but it will pass. A hug from you might help.”

“I love you. Thank you for being patient with me and helping me through this.”

Finally, it is important to recognize that younger children may react in a variety of different ways, including temper tantrums, disruption to sleep or eating schedules, withdrawal, and more. You may want to let other adults in their life—such as teachers, friends’ parents, or neighbors—know about your cancer diagnosis as well so they can provide understanding and support.

Additional resources

You are not alone in this conversation. In addition to local support groups, therapists, and camps for kids whose parents have cancer, the following resources may also help:

  • The Bright Spot Network offers free children’s books on this topic that you can order. It comes with a resource for parents with age-appropriate examples on talking with kids about cancer.
  • This Kid-to-Kid: Your Parent Has Cancer video from MD Anderson explains what cancer is, how it’s treated, ways kids can help support their parents, and ways they can express their feelings and emotions.
  • The American Cancer Society also shares helpful and practical tips on talking with kids of different age groups about cancer.
  • Little Hearts of Hope is a faith-based organization that sends monthly, hope-filled activity packets to children who have a parent or sibling facing cancer.

National Breast Cancer Foundation is here for you and your family as you navigate a breast cancer diagnosis. Visit our website to learn about NBCF breast cancer support groups, obtain free educational resources, or find a patient navigator in your area.

Publish Date: March 26, 2024

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