- 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 break the news with a few short sentences explaining what you know so far and what will happen next.
Be clear about the name of the cancer, the part of the body that has the cancer and how it 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 the Kids’ Guide to Cancer app developed by Camp Quality for children aged 8-13 from the App Store (Apple phones) or Google Play (Android phones).
Start with small amounts of information. Ask them what 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 they are interested. 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 the diagnosis.
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 you can catch cancer, that their naughty behaviour caused the cancer or that everyone dies from cancer). Children get information from various sources, such as school, TV programs and the internet, and they may have their own ideas of what having cancer means. Parents can help guide their children towards accurate online information.
Be honest and open
Let them know if you don’t know the answer to a question. Say 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.
The most important thing is honesty. Tell the truth, don’t sugar-coat, don’t be too over the top. Admit that it’s not going to be a walk in the park, but you’re not going to die tomorrow. The main thing is to be real.
Izzy, aged 15Izzy, aged 15
Tell them what to expect
Your children are likely to want to know what treatment will mean for them. 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, all the teachers, 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 figures in their life, such as a music tutor or sports coach. Discuss ways to approach these conversations. See ideas about talking to the school.
Balance hope with reality
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, and show your love by hugging them, comforting them and making them feel valuable.
Some parents worry about crying in front of their children, but this is okay as long as you are not out of control. 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 honest 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 17Lily, aged 17
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
We thank the reviewers of this book: Professor Kate White, Chair of Nursing, The University of Sydney, NSW; Sarah Ellis, Psychologist, Behavioural Sciences Unit, Kids with Cancer Foundation, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Chandra Franken, Program Manager – NSW & ACT, Starlight Children’s Foundation, NSW; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen, NSW; Keely Gordon-King, Cancer Counselling Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Stephanie Konings, Research Officer, CanTeen, NSW; Sally and Rosie Morgan, Consumers; Dr Pandora Patterson, General Manager, Research and Youth Cancer Services, Canteen, and Adjunct Associate Professor, Cancer Nursing Research Unit, The University of Sydney, NSW and Visiting Professor, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University, UK; Suzanne Rumi, Consumer; Michael Sieders, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality.
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, Founding 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, Different views of cancer; page 24, Answering key questions: Are you going to die?; pages 26 -27, Involving the school or preschool; pages 30 -31, Prepare for hospital and treatment centre visits; and page 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, Children’s Hospital Westmead, for her contribution on page 18, When another child has cancer; Diane McGeachy, Hobart Counselling Centre, for contributing material for page 38, Spending one-on-one time; and Dr Ranjana Srivastava, and The Guardian for permission to adapt €œHow do you tell your children you have cancer? €_x009d_, on pages 21 and 47 – full story is available at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/29/how-do-you-tell-your-children-you-have-cancer.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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Practical advice and support during and after treatment