Talking with Children and Teens About a Cancer Diagnosis

When a Family Member Has Cancer

It is important from the time of diagnosis to be honest when talking with children or adolescents about cancer and your family member’s diagnosis and treatment. Keep your children and teens informed and updated on a regular basis and let them know about each next step.

What to say and how:

  • Give correct but age-appropriate information. You may choose to speak separately to your children based on their ages, developmental levels, and coping styles.
  • Tell them in a calm manner, which will assure them and be less frightening.
  • Reassure them that everything possible will be done to treat the family member and support the family.
  • Reassure them there is no one to blame for the cancer and it is not their fault. Tell them cancer can’t be caused by anything anyone said or did or thought about.
  • Reassure them they are loved and will continue to be loved and cared for.
  • Tell them they cannot catch cancer and that it is okay to hug and kiss their loved one.
  • Do not provide too many details, and answer questions as simply as possible. Too much information may cause anxiety or be overwhelming or confusing. Children will ask for more information if they want or need it.

Give a simple explanation of cancer:

  • Cancer means fast-growing, abnormal cells that grow and divide and crowd out the good cells. When cancer cells grow, they get in the way of normal cells. A tumor is when a group of cancer cells keep growing and crowd out the normal cells.

Explain treatment:

  • There are different ways to remove cancer. You may be specific about the treatments the family member will receive.
  • Treatments include chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
  • Provide info about the treatment(s) and possible side effects, to educate them and to prepare them for the changes they may experience as their loved one goes though treatment.
  • There are more than 100 different kinds of cancer. People respond differently to treatments, and other people may have different treatments than your loved one.

Discuss family routines:

  • Prepare them for the possible changes when the family member is in treatment, such as possible hospital stays and routine and schedule changes. Let them know extended family and friends may be more involved in caring for them, making meals, and giving them rides.
  • Allow children and teens to maintain their schedules and activities. Support them having time with friends and having fun.
  • Try to factor in simple family activities and fun when possible to maintain a connection with them. Watch a movie or a sports game, play cards or a game—whatever the family enjoys doing together.

Discuss children’s and teens’ feelings:

  • Encourage them to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Encourage connecting with a school counselor or teacher. It is important to tell the school what your child is experiencing at home.
  • Find additional support through a therapist. Life with Cancer can help.
  • Children and teens may feel a multitude of feelings including guilt, anger, frustration, and stress. Make the distinction between feelings and behavior. Let them know all feelings are okay, but some behaviors are appropriate and some are not. Address inappropriate behaviors. This helps to maintain a sense of normalcy, structure, consistency, and calm in the family.
  • Request they come to you (or another trusted adult) with any questions or worries and explain you will tell them the truth; if you don’t always know the answers you will try to find them out.
If you are affected by cancer, we invite you to connect with us—whether you're a patient, family member, or friend.