- Cancer Information
- Family and friends
- Talking to kids about cancer
- Talking about the diagnosis
- What do children need to know?
What do children need to know?
The following is a guide to what to cover in your initial conversation about cancer. These suggestions can help you adapt the information to the ages and reactions of your children.
Tell them the basics in words they can understand
You can share the news with a few short sentences explaining what you know so far and what is likely to happen next. Be clear about the name of the cancer, the part of the body affected and how the cancer will be treated.
To help explain cancer terms, you can:
- use the glossary
- get hints from websites
- read books about cancer written for children
- download Camp Quality’s Kids’ Guide to Cancer app from the App Store (Apple devices) or Google Play (Android devices). It provides information about cancer for kids aged up to 15 years.
Once you have explained the basics, ask your kids what else they want to know, and only answer questions that they ask. Don’t assume children will have the same concerns as you; you can give them more details later if needed.
For younger children, accept that they may ask the same question several times. Each time you answer, they will absorb a little more information. Older children may be distant and quiet while they process what you’ve told them.
Find out what they already know
Ask your children what they know about cancer and clear up any misinformation or myths (e.g. they might think that they can catch cancer or that everyone dies from cancer). Children get information from various sources, such as school and social media, and they may have their own ideas of what having cancer means. Parents can guide their children towards accurate online information.
It’s okay to say “I don’t know”
If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s fine to say so. Tell your children that you’ll try to find out the answer from the doctor and let them know as soon as possible. Make sure you follow this through.
Tell them what to expect
Your children are likely to want to know what treatment will mean for their day-to-day lives. If you are in hospital, who will drop them to school, make them dinner, take them to after-school activities? Reassure them that there will be a plan and you will let them know what it is.
Ask them if they want to tell anyone
Your children may want to tell their close friends, their teacher, the whole class – or nobody. Explain that it’s helpful to share the diagnosis with a few key people, such as their main teacher and the school principal, as well as other important people in their life, such as a music tutor or sports coach. Discuss ways to approach these conversations. See ideas about talking to the school.
Offering realistic hope
Tell kids that although cancer can be serious and going through treatment can be challenging, most people get better. Explain that with the help of the doctors and treatment teams, you (or the person with cancer) will be doing everything possible to get well.
Show your love and emotion
Tell your children that you love them. You may show your love by hugging them, comforting them, or other ways of making them feel valuable depending on your family and culture.
Some parents worry about crying in front of their children. It can be helpful for kids to know that strong feelings such as anger and sadness are normal and expressing them can make people feel better. Being open with each other about feelings can help your children cope.
After Dad told us, the six of us sat around crying and hugging one another. Despite the sadness of the occasion, we actually had a pleasant dinner with lots of laughter. Our lives changed from that day.LILY, AGED 17
Prof Jane Turner AM, International Psycho-Oncology Society President Emeritus,The University of Queensland, QLD; Taylor Baker, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Principal Clinical and Health Psychologist, Head of Psychology, Hunter New England Mental Health, NSW; Camp Quality; Dr Lisa Cuddeford, Head of Department, WA Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Perth Children’s Hospital, WA; A/Prof Peter Downie, Head, Paediatric Haematology–Oncology and Director, Children’s Cancer Centre, Monash Children’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sarah Ellis, Clinical Psychologist, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Malia Emberson-Lafoa’i, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jane Gillard, Consumer; Mary McGowan OAM, International Childhood Cancer Advocate, VIC; Annette Polizois, Senior Social Worker, Women, Family and Emergency Care Team, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Rhondda Rytmeister, Clinical Psychologist, HeadWayHealth (formerly Snr Clinical Psychologist, The Cancer Centre for Children, Westmead, NSW); Nadine Street, Head of Social Work and Social Welfare, HNE Mental Health Service, NSW; Warren Summers, Online Counsellor, Canteen, NSW.
We would also like to thank the health professionals, consumers, organisations and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title, and we are grateful to the parents and young people whose real-life stories have added to the richness and relevance of this book.
We thank and acknowledge Dr Paula K. Rauch, MD, Founder and Director, Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, whose research and writing on helping parents talk to their children about cancer was used as source material for this book and has been adapted in several sections: pages 8–11, How children understand cancer; page 22, Answering key questions: Are you going to die?; page 26, Involving the school or preschool; pages 30–31, Hospital visits; and pages 36–37, Encouraging family time. We also thank the American Cancer Society for permission to use and adapt material on pages 8-11 from its book Cancer in Our Family: Helping children cope with a parent’s illness (2013); Macmillan Cancer Support for permission to use its book Talking to Children and Teenagers When an Adult Has Cancer (2013) as a source of information; Jessica Watt, Oncology Social Worker, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, for her contribution on page 20, When another child has cancer; and Diane McGeachy, Hobart Counselling Centre, for contributing material for page 37, Spending one-on-one time.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment