Should I Tell My Kids About My Cancer?

Talking about cancer is hard. Talking about cancer to your children is even harder. But that does not mean that you should keep your disease from your kids. As a parent, you may want to shield your children from the pain and worry stemming from your disease, but research1 has shown higher anxiety levels in children who were not informed of their parent’s condition.

Getting a cancer diagnosis is an incredibly challenging and emotional experience. There are suddenly a million things you have to do and breaking the news to your loved ones could be one of them.

If you have children, you may be on the fence about telling them that you have cancer. However, it is often uncertainty that gives rise to fear, so talking to your children about your illness can help relieve them of such anxieties and also enable them to take better control of their emotions2.

Children can also have overactive imaginations due to their lack of knowledge and understanding about the disease, so educating them about your cancer can help dispel any unfounded thoughts.

Open and honest communication is the backbone of a healthy relationship, including the one with your children. However, we acknowledge its difficulty given the circumstances; cancer is a difficult subject to talk about, so here are some tips on how to tell your children about it

Consider the age, personality, and maturity of your children

Before you jump right into the topic of cancer with your children, you should first consider their age, personality, and maturity and use age-appropriate language with them. How you speak to your toddler should vary from how you speak to your teenager3. Here are some considerations to guide your approach:

  • Infants and toddlers are too young to understand the disease, but they may still be able to sense and be unsettled by changes in your appearance, feelings or routines. Keep them feeling safe and secure by showering them with love and affection.
  • Younger children around the ages of 3 to 5 are starting to grasp concepts like illnesses. However, they will not be able to understand it from your perspective. They may think that the cancer is contagious or that they caused the cancer. Assure them otherwise, and also assure them that they will be loved and taken care of despite the changes to the family routine.
  • Older children or teenagers are able to understand more complex explanations about your illness. They may also have heard about cancer from their friends or on the internet and social media. Find out what they already know and correct any misconceptions they may have about your illness. Try not to shy away from difficult topics like death, as they may have questions about these.

Consider the sensitivity of your child and their ability to cope with stress. This will help guide how much or when to share. Age-appropriate books that are specially written and illustrated to help a child understand cancer can also be very helpful tools to guide your conversation.

Choose an appropriate time and place to share

Give yourself some time to come to terms with the diagnosis so that you are able to talk calmly to your child about it. Pick a time when your child is in a calm mood, and in an environment that is conducive.

Prepare yourself mentally with what you wish to share and how, as well as some possible responses or questions that your child may ask. This conversation does not have to take place all in one sitting; it can happen over different times and settings.

The most important thing is to keep the conversation going by checking in regularly with your child if they have any thoughts or questions.

Use the correct terminology

It is important to use the word “cancer” so that your children will not confuse your disease with another illness that they can potentially catch, like the flu or a cold.

Consider telling them what type of cancer you have, phrased according to their ages. For younger kids, you can tell them which part of your body the cancer is in, while for older kids, you can use the specific disease name, for example, Acute Myeloid Leukaemia or Hodgkin lymphoma.

Let them ask questions

When you are telling your children about your cancer, you may want to periodically check in with them and ask if they have any questions. This will help build trust between you and your kids and will also reassure any doubts they may have.

The important thing is to be honest when answering their questions. It is perfectly okay to tell your kids that you do not know the answer to their questions. You can always bring their questions to your healthcare provider and follow up with them when you have the answer.

Allow them to express how they feel

It is normal to feel upset, stressed, or fearful when hearing about a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Try not to discourage your kids from feeling these emotions.

Instead, encourage your children to express their feelings and suggest healthy ways to help them cope. This could be through talking, drawing, writing or even through play. Observe for any behavioural or mood changes in your child after they have learnt about your cancer.

If your older kids are not too comfortable being completely vulnerable with you, it may help to find a support group, counsellor, or therapist for them instead.

When should you seek additional help?

Some kids may have adverse reactions to your diagnosis and this can affect their day-to-day lives.

If you are unsure of what you can do, you can always speak to a counsellor or a paediatrician for help. Know that there is no shame in requiring additional support for such a difficult situation.

1Rosenheim E, Reicher R. Informing children about a parent's terminal illness. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1985.
2Kroll L, Barnes J, Jones AL, Stein A. Cancer in parents: telling children. BMJ. 1998.
3Adams, Molly. How to talk to your kids about cancer. MD Anderson Center, 2019.
POSTED IN Psychological Health
TAGS cancer diagnosis, cancer positive thinking