Talking to Your Children About Cancer

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Fox Chase offers A free program for school-aged children whose parent or main caregiver has cancer.
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Talking About Your Cancer, a guide for parents

Produced by Joan Hermann, LSW, of Philadelphia's Fox Chase Cancer Center
Introduced by C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General. 18 min.
© 1996 Fox Chase Cancer Center

This video is also available on DVD.

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can affect the whole family. When it comes to communication with each other, families have different styles. The goal, however, should be the same: to instill hope and trust when talking to your kids about cancer.

Helpful Tips

Through the Louise S. Mauran Book Fund, Fox Chase offers free books for your family that offer support and guidance.

Social workers at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia suggest the following tips for talking to your children about cancer.

  1. Tell your child soon after diagnosis.
    • Children are observant. They notice change in routine as well as anxiety, anger, tears, whispering.
    • Without information, children will make-up a reason for what they see.
    • A child could think the problem is worse than it is and feel helpless or frightened.
  2. Keep the explanation simple and age appropriate.
    • For young children - cancer is a lump or swelling that shouldn't be there.
    • For older children, it's okay to give more detail. Cancer is when cells in the body aren't behaving normally.
    • Flu and colds are contagious; cancer is NOT.
    • If anything changes in my condition, I'll let you know.
  3. Be truthful!
    • Give the name of your cancer. For example, "breast cancer."
    • Help the child understand what to expect (hospital for a few days, then several visits to the doctor's office to get medicine.)
    • Let them know that it's not their fault; it's not anyone's fault.
    • "Are you going to die?"—Don't be afraid to address this question.
  4. Talk about your feelings.
    • Medicine may make me feel sick or cranky.
    • I may be sad.
    • Reassure: Doctors say we're taking all the steps we should so that I can get better.
    • Tell your children it's okay to laugh and be happy.
    • I'm here to answer your questions…so is Daddy, Aunt Sue (give choices).
  5. Children want to know how your cancer affects their routine.
    • Explain who will pick them up for school, make dinner, take them to practice, etc.
    • Talk to your children's teachers (This can explain different behaviors; acting out.).
    • Children have a job: do well in school, pay attention, play, help around the house.
  6. Recognize the positive outcomes of this experience for the child.
    • When asked to help with caring for a loved one, a child feels needed.
    • This type of experience can bring families closer together.
    • It can help a child learn how to cope in the future.