Talking to children about cancer can be daunting, but you are not alone. Cancer Council can provide information and support, and can point you in the right direction for specialised assistance. This section explains when to seek professional help for a child and lists many support organisations. It includes a reading list and glossary to help you explain cancer to younger and older children.
Learn more about:
- Getting support
- When to seek professional support for your child
- Health professionals who can help
- Practical and financial help
- Support services
- Online cancer information
- Books about cancer
Many professionals and organisations can help you communicate with your children throughout your experience with cancer. You don’t need to have a specific problem to make contact with these services. You can ask for help even before breaking the news to your children. A health professional could practise the conversations with you so that you feel better prepared.
You can also ask health professionals and organisations for help if you are worried about your children’s behaviour. You may choose to see or call the professional yourself, and to use their advice to sort out the problem. Most parents, with the right advice, can support their children through difficult situations. Occasionally, a child may need to attend a consultation, and parents might be asked to come too.
While it’s difficult to know if your child’s reaction is typical or something more serious, sometimes extra support can help. Some warning signs that you should see a professional are if your child:
- has a change in their usual behaviour (e.g. aggressive or regressive behaviour) that is ongoing
- is showing less mature ways of coping, such as wetting the bed every night for a month
- refuses to go to school – they may say they are too sick for school, but actually have separation anxiety and think they need to stay home to look after their parent
- has a persistent change in eating habits
- has noticeable concentration challenges (dropping grades)
- is spending more time online
- talks about wanting to die or is extremely preoccupied with dying
- is having trouble sleeping
- acts sad and withdrawn
- demonstrates severe behaviour, such as self-harm
- has increased risk-taking behaviours, such as alcohol or drug use
- is withdrawing from friends.
Teachers and other school staff can be among the first people to notice that something is worrying a young person. Because they see children every weekday for many weeks in a row, they may see a change in behaviour, concentration levels, grades, eating habits and socialising with peers. This is one of the reasons it is valuable to let the school know what is going on at home and to ask them to contact you if they have any concerns about how your child is coping.
Professionals to see if you are concerned about your child include:
Your GP and specialists – may be able to talk to your children, or help you decide whether to consult a psychologist.
Nurses – may be the most regular contact you have with the treatment centre and are a source of information and support.
Social workers – link you to support services and help with emotional, practical or financial issues.
Psychologists and counsellors – can help you with communication and behavioural issues (visit Australian Psychological Society and scroll down to “Find a Psychologist”).
School counsellors – are trained in child development and can be a useful source of support and ideas.
Psychiatrists – will see children with more serious issues (you will need a referral from a GP if your child is treated privately).
A cancer diagnosis can affect every aspect of your life, and it often creates practical and financial issues.
There are many sources of support and information to help you, your family and carers navigate all stages of the cancer experience, including:
- information about cancer and its treatment
- access to benefits and programs to ease the financial impact of cancer treatment, such as help with the cost of prescription medicines, transport costs, utility bills or basic legal advice
- home care services, such as Meals on Wheels, visiting nurses and home help
- aids and appliances to make life easier at home
- support groups and programs
- counselling services.
The availability of services may vary depending on where you live, and some services will be free but others might have a cost. To find good sources of support and information, you can talk to the social worker or nurse at your hospital or treatment centre. Or you can call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see Cancer and your finances and Cancer, work and you.
If you feel overwhelmed
A child’s ability to cope is often closely linked to how their parents are coping. Kids often copy their parents’ behaviour, so if Mum or Dad is depressed and anxious, they are more likely to be too. It is important to seek support if you feel overwhelmed.
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.
The information on this page is also available for download.
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