Talking to a Child With Cancer: A Parent’s Guide

Talking to a Child With Cancer

Use this guide to help you talk to a child who has been diagnosed with cancer.

Each year in the U.S. about 12,500 children are diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to improved treatments, more children than ever are surviving cancer. In fact, childhood leukemia, once a sure death sentence, can now be cured more than 80 percent of the time.

If you’ve learned that your child has cancer, you have a lot to cope with. Along with choosing a doctor and finding a treatment center, you’ll need to talk to your child about his or her diagnosis. This guide can help you prepare for those conversations.

Should I talk to my child about cancer?

Health professionals generally agree that parents who tell children the truth about their illness have less stress and guilt. Also, children who know the truth feel more at ease, are more likely to be cooperative and are more trusting of their parents and doctors.

Most parents tell their child soon after the diagnosis. Your child is likely to know that something is wrong, so don’t delay too long. Waiting days or weeks may only fuel a child’s fears.

You may feel that you are the best person to tell your child, but some parents find it too painful. If so, ask another family member or the child’s doctor, nurse or social worker to explain the illness.

What should I say?

What and how much to say depends on the child’s age. Try to gear your talk to the child’s level of understanding. Children younger than 8 years need only simple information. Older children may want more details. At every age, it’s best to be gentle but honest. Tell the child:

  • The name of the cancer
  • What part of the body it is in
  • How it will be treated
  • How it will affect your child’s daily life

Cancer is complex, and it may be hard to know how to explain it to a child. Ask your doctor or hospital staff for materials you can use, such as coloring books or brochures aimed at children. It may help to have a nurse or social worker present to answer questions and give support.

Here are some important messages to share with a child:

  • “The cancer is not your fault.” Children often blame themselves when bad things happen. Make it clear that nothing your child or anyone else did caused the disease.
  • “You didn’t catch it from someone else.” Kids know that some diseases are contagious. Explain that your child did not catch cancer from another person and can’t give it to anyone else.

Encourage your child to ask questions and express his or her feelings. Reassure your child that it’s normal to feel sad, afraid or angry at times. Don’t be afraid to let your child know that you are worried or sad, too. You may want to find a counselor or support group for children to give your child a safe place to work through difficult emotions.

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