Talking to children about your cancer diagnosis

At GenesisCare, we treat you, not just your cancer. It can be incredibly hard being diagnosed with cancer, but the feelings it may cause can echo through to those close to you. 

Feelings of anger, fear, and helplessness are common and natural. For your children, it can be an especially confusing time to learn of your cancer diagnosis. From young children to teenagers, children can find it hard to process or cope with the information.

Because of children's different developmental stages, they will process and experience feelings in very different ways. Younger children may present with physical ailments, rather than saying that they feel anxious, such as expressing that they have a 'tummy ache'.

While you may want to shield and protect your children from anything that might make them sad or afraid, it’s important to include them in the conversation in the right way.  

Why do I need to tell my children I have cancer?

If you, or your partner, are having treatment for cancer, it’s likely that some parts of your normal home life routine will change. Perhaps treatment times will clash with netball or football practice and someone else may have to take your child in your place. 

There may be times when you need to rest and not be as active around the house. Because some cancer treatments take place over some weeks or even months, children may start to notice that something is different. Even very young children are extremely observant. 

Being honest and open can help youngsters cope better with a cancer diagnosis.

Why it is better for you to be honest with your children?

Keeping secrets at the best of times can be stressful. Keeping a cancer diagnosis from your children can add to your level of anxiety at a time when it’s important to practice good self-care. There might also be a concern that your children may find out from someone other than you.

Your child may also realise something is wrong and worry anyway, or even jump to the wrong conclusion. There are many benefits to being open and involving children and teenagers. These include: 

  • Being aware of the situation may make them feel more secure and reduce anxiety
  • It encourages your child to ask questions, open up about how they feel and be able to talk openly to you
  • It can show that you trust them
  • It can help make you all feel more supported – your children can help support you, and you can help support them
  • It might help them cope better with other difficult situations they might face in life

How do I tell my child about a cancer diagnosis?

There are some ways you can prepare to talk to your children about your, or another person close to them, cancer diagnosis.

Plan what you’re going to say. 

While you don’t need a full script, having a clear idea of what you’re going to say can make starting the conversation easier. Using simple, straightforward language is important, such as: “I have an illness called cancer. The doctors are doing the best they can to help me. I’m having some treatment that might make me tired.”

You should have a think about the possible questions your children might ask and the words you’ll use to explain things. Even though you'll want to reassure them, it's important to be honest. It can be much harder for children to deal with setbacks if they have been told 'I will get better', and they may then not trust they are being told correct information.

Choosing language carefully is key when talking to children of different ages about cancer. For very young children this may be the first time they’re hearing the word. Older children or teenagers may already know a little more about cancer.

If you’re not sure what language to use, our nurses and healthcare professionals are highly experienced in supporting our patients through cancer. They can help advise and guide you.

Choosing neutral and calm language.

Starting the conversation with “I have some bad news” is telling your child how to feel about your diagnosis. Staying neutral and giving them the facts will let them know it’s ok to feel how they want. Don’t be surprised if very young children seem unbothered by the news, or if older children need time on their own to process the information.

Choose a suitable time and place. 

You might know of a place where you and your children feel more able to talk. It should be somewhere they'll feel safe to express their feelings. Just before bedtime or at a crowded sports game isn’t the best time or place for this conversation. Find a quiet, private place where you and your child can talk openly without interruptions. 

If your children are a similar age, it can be a good idea to tell them together if you can. This can help stop them from feeling like their siblings know more than them. If you do tell them separately, you should try to speak to them as close together as possible as some children may wonder why they were told last.

Try to avoid only telling the older children, as this can place a burden on them.

Keep communication open. 

Your child may not feel like talking about the diagnosis right away. Let them know that’s ok, but you’re there to talk if they ever have questions. Be honest if you don’t know the answers and tell them you’ll do your best to find out.

How to support your children after the conversation

Letting your child’s school and close friends know that the conversation has happened can be helpful in making sure your child is coping ok when you’re not with them. 

Keeping their routines and activities the same lets them know that not everything has to change. This can help make them feel secure. Letting them know that it’s ok to talk to you or other people about how they’re feeling will help prevent them from feeling alone or in the dark. Encourage questions and discussions at home, but also make time for fun activities and family time that’s not focused on your cancer diagnosis.

Do remember that it is also important for you to receive support, so that in turn you can be supportive to your children. This can be through family, friends, counsellors, or another person you trust. Role modelling that it is ok to share feelings and talk through with those you trust can be very helpful. 

Further support and resources

The healthcare team at GenesisCare is there to help you at every stage of your cancer treatment journey. Talk to your team and ask about our Penny Brohn wellbeing services that can help you deal with cancer-related stresses, from counselling to reflexology. 

Some other good resources for parents include:

Talking to children and teenagers | Macmillan Cancer Support

Talking to children about cancer | Cancer Research UK

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