Diagnosis questions and answers

It’s often hard to find the right words or to start or continue a conversation. The suggestions below may help you work out what you want to say. Although these are arranged by age, you may find that the ideas in a younger or older age bracket work for your child. See also our tips on how to answer specific questions.

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Newborns, infants and toddlers (0–3 years)

Obviously babies don’t need explanations, but they do need physical reassurance. The older toddlers get, the more they understand basic ideas about themselves and their family.

About cancer

“Mummy is sick and needs to go to hospital to get better. You can visit her there soon.”

To explain change and reassure

“Mummy has to stay in bed a lot and isn’t able to play, but she still loves you.”

“Daddy and Mummy need to go away for a couple of nights, so Grandma is going to come and stay at home with you.”

Preschoolers (3–6 years)

Preschool children are ready to understand very basic explanations about many things, including illness, family routines, and cause and effect. They will want to know how the cancer relates to them.

About cancer

“I have an illness called cancer. The doctor is giving me medicine to help me get better. The medicine might make me feel sick or tired some days, but I might feel fine on other days.”

To address misunderstanding

“Sometimes girls and boys worry that they thought or did something to cause cancer. No-one can make people get cancer, and we can’t wish it away either.”

“How do you think people get cancer?”

To explain change and reassure

“Mummy needs to go to the hospital every day for a few weeks, so Daddy will be taking you to preschool instead. He’s looking forward to doing that.”

“Pop is sick so we won’t see him for a while, but he loves you very much.”

“I love your pictures, so maybe you can draw me some to take to hospital.”

Young schoolchildren (6–10 years)

Young school-aged children can understand basic explanations about illness and family routines. They need regular reassurance so they continue to feel loved, safe and cared for.

About cancer

“I have an illness called cancer. It means some lumps are growing inside my body that shouldn’t be there, and they’re making me sick. I am going to have an operation in hospital to have the lumps taken out. Then I’ll have some more medicine to make sure they don’t grow back.”

“The doctors say Dad has a problem with his blood. That’s why he’s been very tired lately. The illness is called Hodgkin lymphoma. Dad will have treatment to make him well again.”

“Lots of people get cancer. We don’t know why it happens. Most people get better and we expect I will get better too.”

To address misunderstanding

“We can still have lots of kisses and cuddles – you cannot catch cancer from me or from anyone.”

“Cancer is a disease of the body that can be in different places for different people.”

“Even though your friends at school say that cancer is really bad and I will get very sick, they don’t know everything about this cancer. I will tell you what I know about my cancer.”

To explain change and reassure

“The doctors will take good care of me. I will have treatment soon, which I’ll tell you about when it starts.”

“Even though things might change a bit at home, you’ll still be able to go to tennis lessons while Dad is having his treatment.”

“Mum is going to be busy helping Grandma after she comes out of hospital. There are ways we can all help out, but mostly things won’t change for you.”

“You don’t have to tell your friends about me having cancer if you don’t want to, but I would like to let your teachers know so they understand what’s happening at home.”

Older children and teenagers (10–18 years)

In upper primary and high school, children have a more complex understanding of illness and issues affecting them and their families. 

Teenagers are starting to think more like adults. Explanations about the cancer can be more detailed. Children of this age need reassurance about their own wellbeing, and also about the person with cancer.

About cancer

“We’ve had some bad news. I’ve got cancer. We don’t know what we’re dealing with yet, but I’m going to have surgery so that the doctors can have a look and find out.”

“You know that Mum has been sick a lot lately. The doctors told us today that the tests show she has cancer. The good news is that she has an excellent chance of beating it.”

To address misunderstanding

“There are lots of different types of cancer and they’re all treated differently. Even though Uncle Bob had cancer, it might not be the same for me.”

“The doctor doesn’t know why I got cancer. It doesn’t mean that you’ll get cancer too. It’s not contagious (you can’t catch it) and the cancer I have is not hereditary (it doesn’t run in families).”

“Even though Grandma has cancer, the doctors say she’ll probably be okay because she was diagnosed early.”

To explain change and reassure

“Things will be different at home when Dad’s having treatment, but we’ll be able to visit him at the hospital.”

“After my operation, there are a few things I won’t be able to do for a while, like lifting things and driving. So you’ll all have to pitch in at home, and Dad will leave work early to take you to your after-school activities.”

“Whatever happens, you will always be cared for. We will tell you what’s going on as soon as we are told.”

“If you think of any questions or have any worries, you can come and talk to me. It’s okay if you want to talk to someone else too.”

Answering key questions

Although each child reacts to the news of a cancer diagnosis in their own way, there are some questions that tend to come up. Consider our examples of answers below and think about how you might respond if your child asks you these questions.

Q. Are you going to die?

This is the question that most parents fear, but often it doesn’t mean what you think. For example, younger children may really mean “Who is going to look after me?” Older children may be wondering, “Can we still go on our holiday?”

Try to explore the question by asking, “Do you have something in particular you’re worried about?” or “What were you thinking about?” Some children think that cancer is a death sentence, so it’s good to explain that many people are cured through surgery and medicine, and that new treatments are being found all the time.

A. “Some people do die from the type of cancer I have, but I’m going to do everything that my doctor suggests to get better.”

“We don’t expect that to happen, but I will probably be sick for a while. Sometimes it makes me sad, and I wonder if you get sad too.”

Q. Was it my fault?

Some children may ask you directly if they are to blame for the cancer, while others worry in silence, so it’s best to discuss the issue.

A. “It’s no-one’s fault I have cancer. Scientists don’t know exactly why some people get cancer, but they do know that it isn’t anything you did or said that made me sick.”

“You did not cause this cancer. There is nothing you could have said
or done that would cause someone to have this illness.”

Q. Can I catch cancer?

A common misconception for many children (and some adults) is that cancer is contagious. This belief may be reinforced because when patients have chemotherapy they need to avoid contact with other people who are sick. Chemotherapy precautions are to protect the person with cancer from picking up infections, not to protect everyone else.

A. “You can’t catch cancer like you can catch a cold by being around someone who has it, so it’s okay to be close to me even though I’m sick.”

“Cancer can spread through the body of a person with cancer, but it can’t spread to another person.”

Q. Who will look after me?

When a problem arises in the family, it’s important for children to know what will happen to them and how it will affect their lives: who will look after them, who will pick them up from school, and how roles will change. Try to give them as much detail as possible about changes so they know what to expect. For older children, it’s worth asking them what arrangements they’d prefer.

A. “We will try to keep things as normal as possible, but there may be times when I have to ask Dad/Mum/Grandpa to help out.”

Q. Do I have to tell other people about it?

Your children may not know who to tell about the cancer or what to say. They may not want to say anything at all. It helps to explore their feelings about talking to others.

If you’re planning to inform teachers, or the school counsellor or principal, talk to your kids first. Teenagers and even younger children may be reluctant for the school to know, so explain how the school can help and then chat about the best way to approach the school.

A. “You can tell your friends if you want to, but you don’t have to. Many people find it helps to talk about the things that are on their mind.”

“What comes into your mind when you think about talking to other people about cancer?”

“It’s important that the school knows what’s happening, but we can talk about who we should tell and how much we should say.”

Q. Is there anything I can do to help?

Answering this question can be a delicate balance. It’s great to allow the kids to contribute, but it’s important that they don’t feel overwhelmed with responsibility. Some parents may feel hurt if their children don’t ask how they can help, but it’s common for children not to think to offer.

A. “Yes, there are lots of things you can do to help. We will work out what those things can be, and what will make things easier for everyone. Is there something in particular you would like to do?”

“Some help around the house would be good, but it’s important that you keep up with your schoolwork and you have some time for fun and for seeing your friends.”

This information was last reviewed in December 2015
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