Explaining the Diagnosis

It’s usually best to talk with your children soon after the type of cancer (the diagnosis) is known. Sharing information early on will help build trust. When children know they are being kept informed, it helps make the experience less frightening. This is not to say that talking about cancer is easy. Here are some tips for talking to your children about a cancer diagnosis:

Prepare what you want to say. Many parents find it helpful to practice or write down what they want to say before the first conversation. Other parents feel that having their spouse, partner, close friend, or a relative with them makes it easier. Parents also tell us that choosing a quiet time when they and their children are rested makes the conversation less stressful. If you have children of different ages, you might speak with your older children first. Perhaps, the older children will want to help you tell your younger children. Try to have these conversations as close together as possible so that all members of the family are aware of the situation and have a chance to support each other.

Set the tone. As important as what you say is how you say it. Try to use a calm and reassuring voice. It’s okay if you become sad or feel like crying. Some adults and children who think of crying as a sign of weakness will bottle up their feelings inside, causing more distress. However, crying can be a good way to cope. When a parent expresses sadness through crying, it shows children that it’s okay for them to do the same.

If your children become upset or wander off, tell them that you know this is a tough conversation and you understand how they feel. You can always come back to it later.

Remember that children, especially young ones, tend to have short attention spans. Do not talk longer than they can listen, but be sure to ask them if they have questions. If you don’t know the answer, let them know you will find out and get back to them as soon as possible. This teaches children that although parents don’t always have all the answers, they will do their best to help their children. This also lets children know that they have permission to ask any questions they like.

Consider your child’s age. When speaking with your children, use words that are common and familiar; your children will have an easier time understanding what cancer is and what to expect. In addition, keep in mind that children at different ages have different ways of understanding things. Every parent knows his or her child’s level of maturity and comprehension, but you can use this information as a guide to what works best with different age groups.

When speaking with your children, use simple and concrete terms. For example, you might say: “Mommy is sick with an illness called cancer. The cancer happened on its own—nobody did anything to make it happen. I have very good doctors, and I am going to do everything possible to get better.” It is also important to let children know that cancer is not contagious. Young children often think of being sick in terms of catching germs. Let them know they can’t catch cancer like a cold. Tell them you can hug and kiss each other just like always.

Don’t be surprised if a child between the ages of 5 and 8 is mainly concerned about himself. “Who will take care of me?” is a common question. This is not because young children are selfish. At their developmental stage, they see the world from their point of view and do not see the larger picture until they get older. Letting them know that they will be taken care of and that you will have a plan in place will help them cope with any changes to their routine. Older children also need to be reassured that their needs will be met.

Children above the age of 5 or 6 are likely to have more questions. Be prepared to answer their questions to the best of your knowledge, but keep in mind that there is no need to talk beyond what is asked. This will give children the chance to absorb information at their own pace; perhaps they will have more questions later.

No matter what their age, it’s important to let your children know that what they are feeling is normal and okay. Finding out what they might have heard about cancer is helpful in order to clear up any misinformation. Be honest and hopeful. Having frequent conversations will help your children feel safer and more secure.

Ask professionals for guidance. If you need guidance before talking with your children or at any time afterward, contact CancerCare. Our team of professional oncology social workers can help you find age-appropriate ways to answer your children’s questions and concerns and can refer you to helpful resources.

Read CancerCare’s fact sheet titled, “Helping Children Understand Cancer: Talking to Your Kids About Your Diagnosis” for more information and tips.