Honey, I Have Cancer: How to Talk to Your Children About Cancer

Waiting for the right moment to tell your children "I have cancer" takes patience and courage.

Contributed by Michelle Hassler

Sitting across from a doctor and hearing the words, “you have cancer” may be the scariest moment of your life. Those three little words may seem like they can stop time altogether. However, after the initial blow, time seems to speed up as you immediately become more aware of your mortality than ever before. Some are immediately hit with the gravity of the situation. Others may need time to process the information and seek comfort in a mind-numbing state of denial. Reality may seem too harsh, too uncertain, or too much to process. However, there is one part of reality that may be even harder to handle: having to tell your children, “I have cancer.” As a parent, you have always been there to support and protect your children. Not knowing what changes the future will bring is a scary reality. How are your kids supposed to cope with this diagnosis when you yourself are having trouble dealing with the news?

Of course, families have different dynamics and every child is unique. Exactly how you tell your children, “I have cancer” is a personal decision as far as timing and method of delivery. Depending on the age of your child, you will use different terminology and explanations to describe the cancer and treatment process. However, it is important to be open and honest. Sharing information with your children will help them know what to expect and provide them with a sense of control in a situation where it is easy to feel powerless.

When talking to your kids about cancer, consider the following suggestions when it comes to content, delivery, and accessibility.


Choose an Appropriate Time

Certainly, the “I have cancer” conversation is not one to have on the way to baseball practice. Designate a block of time when there are no other activities or distractions. Choose a time when children are alert, calm, and can have free time after the conversation. If you have more than one child, it may be best to speak with each one individually. This way you can tailor the terminology and explanations to their appropriate age level and meet their emotional needs in an individual setting. Explain things on a level they can understand in a thoughtful, serious way. If you would like, you can regroup as a family and have a larger meeting after speaking to everyone if it would be helpful for your family members to engage in group support. Be sure to continue to check in with each individual child throughout your treatment and see how they are feeling. They might just need some reassurance along the way. They may not want to approach you out of a sense they are afraid or fearful they are burdening you. Be sure to seem approachable and encourage them to come to you with questions.


Go In With a Plan

If you have a spouse, talk to them about how they think the subject should be approached. If you do not have a spouse, reach out to a close confidant such as a sibling or best friend and have them help you through the process. During difficult conversations, it’s important to remember that things often do not go as planned—and that is okay. Be flexible and honest. It will be an emotional conversation and emotional conversations can be unpredictable. It is okay to cry. It is okay to show emotion and to be vulnerable in front of your children. However, it is important to remain a constant pillar of love. Reassure that you love them, you will always be there for them, and they will always be taken care of. Remind them that you cannot catch cancer and it is not their fault! Do not blow off their questions. Facing their fears head-on will create a dialogue that they need to have and will provide reassurance that you are being honest with them throughout the process.


Educate Your Family

Arm yourself and your family with knowledge. Remember, knowledge is power and feeling like they are kept in the loop will allow them to feel informed and helped to avoid pangs of fear or uncertainty when others ask them about your condition.

Older children will have a better understanding of what cancer is and the what the process entails. However, do not assume that they know all about it. Cancer is a scary word and many kids and adults will automatically think they worst when they hear you say, “I have cancer.” You may want to have literature on hand to help explain things. Perhaps print out an article explaining the type of cancer you have if it would help your teenager to understand the diagnosis. They may want to see pictures of cancer cells or hear specifics regarding methods of treatment.

For younger children, you may want to start by focusing on the part of the body that has the cancer. Explain that the specific part of your body is not working the way it should. If there is a tumor, explain that a bunch of bad cells started to grow and they need to be taken out or stopped from growing. This narrative will be different depending on your type of cancer and individual case. Explain possible symptoms such as pain, nausea, and hair loss in order to prepare them to see vulnerable side of you. Reassure them that if they are tired or grumpy they still love you more than ever.


Arrange Support

Throughout diagnosis and treatment, it may be beneficial for children to speak with someone else regarding your cancer whether it is another adult in their life or an outside professional source. Also, talk to friends and family about helping to ease your burden and help with your household routines especially during treatment. Whether you are recovering from surgery, receiving radiation, or undergoing chemotherapy, you will need help logistically and emotionally. Setting up a community through Lotsa Helping Hands will allow friends to help support you and your family.