What do children need to know?

Some people’s cancer may be advanced when they are first diagnosed. For others, the cancer may spread or come back (recur) after initial treatment. If the cancer has advanced, it is important to keep talking with your children. Again, just as with the initial diagnosis, children may sense that something is happening, and not telling them can add to their anxiety and distress.

Children may have similar feelings to adults after hearing the cancer has advanced. These include shock, denial, fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, or loneliness.

Preparing children and young people for the loss of a family member is a daunting and challenging thing to do. The following is a guide to what to cover in the initial conversation. These suggestions can help you use words they will understand.

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Listen to our podcasts on Explaining Cancer to Kids and Family Dynamics and Cancer

Be honest and open

Once children know the cancer has advanced, they will need to be given some idea about what this may mean in terms of the outcome (prognosis). With some cancers, the prognosis is fairly clear and people will know that they may have only months to live. However, more and more people with advanced disease are surviving for a longer time, sometimes for many years.

If death is likely in the short term, it is best to be as honest and truthful as you can while trying to make the subject of death less frightening. For example, avoid saying that death is always peaceful as this may not be the case. If you need to talk about yourself or your partner, this can be an especially hard thing to do. You don’t need to do it on your own: social workers and other health professionals at the cancer treatment centre or the palliative care service can help you to tell your children.

Being open about death gives you and your family the chance to show and say how much you care for each other, as well as the opportunity to work on any unresolved issues. The chance to talk through old arguments and make amends seems to be particularly important for older children.

Tell them what to expect

Prepare children by explaining how the illness might affect the person in the days ahead and what treatment they may have. For example, they might be sleepy or need a lot of medicine. Young children tend to think in concrete terms, and it helps to talk about death as a change in function. For example, “When Grandma dies, her body will stop working. She will stop breathing, and she won’t feel anything either.”

Balance hope with reality

A diagnosis of advanced cancer does not mean giving up hope. Some people live for years with cancer that has advanced, and sometimes receive palliative treatment alongside active treatment. They can continue to enjoy many aspects of life, including spending time with their children and other people who are important to them.

As the disease progresses, the things that are hoped for may change. You can still be honest and offer hope. For example, a person may now focus on living comfortably for as long as possible or being able to celebrate a particular event. You can share these hopes with children while still acknowledging the reality of the situation and allowing them to prepare for the loss.

Wait for your children to ask

When you talk with your children about death, offer simple and short explanations. Give brief answers to questions they ask. Wait for the next question to emerge and respond to that. It usually doesn’t help to offer lots of explanations if your children aren’t ready to hear them. If they ask a question you don’t know the answer to, say you’ll find out and let them know.

Use words they can understand

Terms such as “passed away”, “passed on”, “lost”, “went to sleep”, “gone away” or “resting” can be confusing for children. It’s best to use straightforward language. This includes using the words “dying” or “death”. See What words should I use for some examples of how to explain these concepts.

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Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4059


To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit: http://www.kobo.com/help/koboaura/response/?id=3784&type=3

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit: https://au.readerstore.sony.com/apps_and_devices/

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=help_search_1-1?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200767340&qid=1395967989&sr=1-1
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit www.amazon.com/manageyourkindle, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200375630

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in December 2018
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Support services

Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Caring for someone with cancer
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Cancer information

Advanced cancer
Information for different stages of advanced cancer

What is grief?
A natural response to loss can involve a range of feelings and experiences