- Cancer Information
- Family and friends
- Talking to kids about cancer
- Talking about the diagnosis
- What words should I use?
What words should I use?
It’s often hard to find the words to start or continue a conversation. The suggestions below may help you work out what you want to say. Although these are grouped by age, you may find that the ideas in a younger or older age bracket work for your child.
Learn what words to use for:
Infants, toddlers & preschoolers
|About cancer||“Mummy is sick and needs to go to hospital to get better. You can visit her there soon.” |
“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 check knowledge of cancer||“How do you think people get cancer?”|
“Sometimes children 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.”
“We can still have lots of kisses and hugs – you cannot catch cancer from me.”
To explain changes and offer assurance
|“Mummy needs to go to the hospital every day for a few weeks, so Daddy will be taking you to preschool/school instead.” |
“Grandpa is sick so we won’t see him for a while. He loves your pictures, so maybe you can draw me some to take to hospital.”
“Mummy has to stay in bed a lot and isn’t able to play, but she can still cuddle you.”
“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 getting better.”
“Do you know what cancer is? Cancer is a disease of the body that can be in different places for different people.”
|To check knowledge of cancer||“We can still have lots of kisses and cuddles – you cannot catch cancer from me or from anyone who has it.” |
“Even though your friends at school might 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 changes and offer assurance
|“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 will stay the same for you.”
Older children and teenagers
|About cancer|| “The doctors say Dad has a problem in his blood – it’san illness called Hodgkin lymphoma. That’s why he’s been very tired lately. Dad will have treatment to help him get better.” |
“Lots of people get cancer; we don’t usually know why. Most people get better and we expect I will get better too.”
|To check knowledge of cancer||“There are many 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 doesn’t run in families.”
To explain changes and offer assurance
|“Things will be different while Dad’s having treatment, and when I can’t drive you to soccer training, Annie will drive you instead.” |
“After my operation, there are a few things I won’t be able to do for a while, like lifting things and driving. Our friends are going to help by dropping off meals.”
“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.”
Busting the myths
There are many common fears and misconceptions around talking with children about cancer.
Here are a few myths (and why they are incorrect):
- “I have to get it right”: There is no “right” time or way to talk to your children about cancer; every family will find their own way to have these conversations. We offer a range of suggested approaches.
- “Finding out I have cancer will traumatise my children”: Some children may have strong reactions to hearing that their parent has cancer, but this does not necessarily mean they are not coping.
- “As a parent, I have to appear to know what I am doing at all times, and be in control”: It’s okay to be sad in front of your children, and to not know all the answers.
- “Coping with cancer means that my children will always be happy and look on the bright side”: Sadness, anger and fear are all normal reactions. Learn about some warning signs that your child may need some extra support.
- “There will be one big conversation where I break the news of cancer”: While the first discussion is likely to be difficult, this will be the first of a series of conversations where your children can ask questions and explore their feelings and responses.
Podcast: Explaining Cancer to Kids
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