- Cancer Information
- Family and friends
- Talking to kids about cancer
- Talking about treatment
- What do children need to know?
What do children need to know?
Providing children and young people with information about the treatment, why and how it is done, and possible side effects can help them to understand what to expect in the weeks and months ahead.
Learn more about:
- Let the children be your guide as to how much they already know and how much they want to know about treatment.
- Start with questions such as “Have you heard the word chemotherapy?” or “Do you know what radiation therapy is?”. Then explain the basic facts using language they can understand (see our Glossary).
- Check if your kids want to know more, and let them know that they can ask questions throughout the treatment period if they have other queries or concerns.
- Talk to kids about how to search for accurate information online (here is a list of recommended websites), to avoid incorrect or unhelpful information.
- Keep them up to date with how long treatment will take and the length of the hospital stay.
- Explain who will be taking care of the person with cancer and the different ways the carers will help.
It’s important to prepare children for treatment side effects, such as weight changes, fatigue, nausea, scars and hair loss.
- Explain that not everyone gets all side effects. People who have the same cancer and treatment will not necessarily have the same side effects. Doctors know what happens to most people having a particular treatment but can’t be exactly sure what will happen to each person – everybody is different.
- Tell your children what side effects to expect, based on what the doctor has said, and how these may change how you look or feel. Say you’ll let them know if you start to experience these side effects.
- Talk about ways your children can help you deal with the side effects (e.g. help shave your head or choose a wig). Such actions make your children feel like they’re being useful.
- Let them know that the doctors will try to make sure treatment causes as few side effects as possible. They should know that side effects usually go away after the treatment is over – hair will grow back, scars will fade – but this often takes time.
- Reassure your children that they will get used to the changes. Point out that you’re still the same person as before.
- Side effects do not mean that you’re getting worse. It’s common for kids to get upset on chemotherapy session days when they see the effects of the drugs, which may include fatigue or vomiting. They may worry that the treatment is making the cancer worse or that the cancer has progressed.
- Let your children know that these treatment side effects are separate to the cancer symptoms. If there are no side effects, reassure them that this doesn’t mean the treatment is not working.
- If side effects mean you can’t join in usual family activities, make sure your children understand that it doesn’t mean you’re not interested.
- Explain to them how much of the side effect is considered normal. This can be especially important for older teenagers who might worry about when they should call for help.
Making a day of it
“I knew that my hair falling out might be very traumatic for the kids. I invited 2 girlfriends around and involved the children in a self-indulgence day. I got one girlfriend to make scones while the other friend shaved my hair off. There was lots of laughter, the children got involved in the shaving, and then we all put on make-up and did our nails.
It was a great afternoon. There was no trauma. The children were happy to see I was happy and that I could still look wonderful with make-up on.”
ANNA, MOTHER OF TWO CHILDREN AGED 9 AND 13
When my ex-wife got breast cancer, I talked to my little girl about how the treatment caused changes, like Mummy would get very tired and her hair would fall out, but we expected her to be okay.SIMON, FATHER OF A 4-YEAR-OLD
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.