Answering key questions about diagnosis

Following are possible answers to challenging questions that your children may ask you about your cancer diagnosis:

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 away during the school holidays?”

Try to explore the question by asking, “Do you have something in particular you’re worried about?” or “What were you thinking about?” You can explain that treatments are improving constantly. If your child knows someone who has died, let them know that there are many different types of cancer and everyone responds differently.

A: “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 caused 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 can spread from person to person (contagious). This belief may be reinforced because when patients have chemotherapy they need to avoid contact with people who are sick. This is 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 hug or kiss 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 family routines change, it’s important for children to know 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 sometimes I may 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 the benefits of telling the school and then chat about the best way to approach the discussion. Ask if your teenagers want to be involved in talking to key teachers or the principal with you – this way they are part of the agreement made with the school.

A: “You can tell your friends if you want to, but you don’t have to. People we know may talk about the diagnosis, so your friends might hear even if you don’t tell them. Many people find it helps to talk about the things that are on their mind.”

“Do you worry about how your friends will react or treat you?”

“I need to let your teachers know so they understand what’s happening at home. We can talk about who to tell and how much we should say.”

Q: Is there anything I can do to help?

Answering this question can be a delicate balance. Letting kids know that they can help may make them feel useful, 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.”

Thinking the worst

“When I was 14, Dad developed a bad cough. I remember sitting in my older sister’s lounge room on a Sunday afternoon. Dad was coughing. I knew they were going to tell us something because they were sitting down.

Dad just told us straight: “I have cancer.” Mum tried to sugar-coat it and said there were things they could do, but I was thinking the worst. It’s the great fear – death and dying – and I just thought, “He’s going to die.” I wanted to run. I wanted to do something. I thought if I could just do something, that would change it. I joined CanTeen the next day.

Right from the start, Dad said, “I might be the one with cancer, but you are going to be affected by it, so we will make decisions as a family. We’re going to fight this – one in, all in.”

Izzy, 15-year-old whose father had cancer

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This information was last reviewed in December 2018
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