Talking With Children About Cancer
After diagnosis, you may feel a range of emotions. You may wonder how to talk with your children about cancer and the emotions we are feeling but struggle to express.
Even though it is hard, it is important to have age-appropriate conversations about cancer with your children, talking about what happens during cancer and the emotions your child might have. These conversations will help your children feel safe and connected to you. For more guidance, visit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Children need age-appropriate information about their parent's cancer.
The American Cancer Society suggests all children need the following basic information about their loved one’s cancer:
The name of the cancer, such as breast cancer or lymphoma
The part of the body where the cancer is
How it will be treated
How their own lives will be affected
Children need an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their emotions.
You may wonder how to communicate about cancer with your children. This is an understandable concern. Sharing emotions is about feeling safe. How can we create this environment with our children?
Use routines and rituals, such as a bedtime tuck in, a special handshake or saying, storytelling, and sharing joys and concerns during a meal
Take time each day to check in. Communicate about your own feelings and where you hold emotions in your body. Ask your child to do a body scan for their feelings and where they hold them.
Give permission to have a range of feelings: “It’s okay to not feel okay right now. [Sadness, fear, and worry] are uncomfortable. I am here.”
Acknowledge that roles and routines will change. Talk about those changes.
Make new memories through creative activities, games, storytelling, dancing, visits with friends and family.
Children need help communicating their questions, worries and thoughts.
Use a doll or stuffed animal to show where the cancer is, and to role play a conversation between the animals to talk about feelings.
Compare and contrast real life examples of others who have been sick, to clarify how your cancer is similar and different
Offer reassurance: It’s okay to be worried, have questions, and have many thoughts about cancer and your loved one being sick.
Offer connection: we will get through this together. I am here for you through all your emotions.
Ask open-ended questions about your children’s experiences, their day, their joys and concerns.
Read stories about cancer, change, and feelings. Use creativity to help process the experience.
Creative Activities to Process Emotions to Support Children and Teens
From the American Cancer Society’s book, Because… Someone I Love Has Cancer. You can download more activities here.
Roleplay what happens during cancer with dolls or stuffed animals.
Create a feeling collage using drawings, words, and pictures from magazines.
Plant a seed or garden and talk about what things need to grow.
Go on a neighborhood walk and notice details in your surroundings. Talk about how things change during different times of day and seasons.
Make play dough and sculpt feelings.
Tell jokes and laugh together.
Create a special saying board with healing words and inspirational quotes.
Tell shared stories of favorite memories.
Make a feelings clock to tell the time of our feelings.
Talk about how things change and how they stay the same.
Write troubles on slips of paper, and have a stuffed animal or drawing of a creature eat them.
Make a family or friend portrait.
Write a letter to the person with cancer, such as:
I just want you to know…
One thing that scares me is…
I really like when you…
Something I’ve been wanting to tell you is…
I don’t really like when…
Most importantly, you should know that…
Examples of Questions and Age-Appropriate Responses
SCHOOL - AGE
What Is Cancer?
Cancer is a kind of being sick. I’ll have to see the doctor a lot so they can try to make it better. It’s not something you can catch, it’s something that’s gone wrong in my body.
Cancer is a sickness that is affecting my ______. It’s serious. The doctors at the hospital will do everything they can to make it better, so I will have lots of tests and medicine and may need to stay in the hospital for a little while.
Cancer is a group of diseases in which the body’s cells grow and divide uncontrollably and quickly. Often those cells form a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. Some types of cancer do not form a tumor. The doctors at the hospital will do everything they can to make it better, so I will have lots of tests and medicine and may need to stay in the hospital for a little while.
Can I get cancer? Can I catch it?
You can’t catch cancer from someone else. It just happens inside some people. And kids don’t usually get cancer, so we’d know if you have it. I know it’s scary to think about _____ having cancer. You can still hug them and hold them close.
You don’t catch cancer from someone else. People your age hardly ever get it. When they do, there are special hospitals full of different kinds of doctors to help them get better. I know it’s scary to think about _____ having cancer. You can still hug them and hold them close. It is not your fault.
Cancer is not a disease that transfers from one person to another. You cannot catch cancer like you can a cold. The chance of a child or teen developing cancer is relatively low. If it happens, doctors do everything they can to treat and cure. There are many people working hard to help patients with cancer survive and thrive through treatment. I know it’s scary to think about _____ having cancer. You can still hug them and hold them close. It’s not your fault.
What happens when someone has cancer?
When someone has cancer, they have to go to the hospital a lot. The medicine may make them very tired. They may need to rest a lot. They will love you always.
When someone has cancer, doctors use tests to decide how the person will be treated, usually with surgery and medicine. The medicine may make them very tired. They may need to rest a lot. The treatment will change the person, but their love for you will stay the same. Cancer is serious and doctors will do everything they can to get rid of it.
A person starts with a diagnosis. The medical team uses tests to determine if the person has cancer. Then the team decides on a treatment, including surgical procedures and medicine. The treatment often changes the person’s body and affects them emotionally. Sometimes the cancer comes back. Sometimes people go through treatment their whole lives. And sometimes people don’t survive cancer. Doctors do everything they can to treat and cure.
What can I do to help a friend or loved one with cancer?
It will feel good to help ____
during their cancer.
Let's ask how we can help.
How would you like to send them love?
Maybe we can make them a card, send them a photo, paint a kindness rock, or bake them a treat.
It will feel good to help ____ during their cancer. What would you like to do? We could cook a meal, send a video hug, or make a card.
It will feel so good to help ____ during their cancer. What would you like to do? If they don’t have one, you could coordinate a meal calendar. Maybe you can set a reminder and text/call them on their treatment days.