Helping children understand a loved one's cancer
Supporting children through a family member’s diagnosis and treatment is a complex and sensitive undertaking. Like all of us, children need emotional support. They need to have their routine maintained as much as possible, and they need to understand your family’s guidelines about privacy–what's OK to share and what isn’t. The process of resolving these needs depends on how old your kids are and what kind of diagnosis and treatment you’re dealing with.
How you talk about cancer will vary based on your knowledge of your child and your family’s culture, faith, and beliefs about cancer. This is your family, so you know best.
Where to start?
Prepare yourself for questions. Learn what you can about the diagnosis, including side effects and treatment schedule. Children of different ages have different kinds of questions, though some topics are common with all children who are facing a cancer diagnosis for someone they love.
Teaching children early. The earlier they know about the diagnosis, the more included they feel, and the more able they are to understand the changes they see. Children can usually sense when something is wrong and often imagine the worst if they do not know what is happening.
Begin with what the child sees and knows: “You know how your aunt has been tired and sleeping a lot?” Use the actual name of the disease, including the word “cancer,” so the child becomes familiar with it. This will help them feel prepared for the terminology they will hear from others. Explain that every situation is different, and that cancer doesn’t affect everyone in the same way.
Choose a time to talk. Speak with children when you feel you can calmly discuss the illness and support your child with his/her emotional reaction. Your child may be upset by the information or he/she may have very little reaction. Children often need to absorb information over time.
Use language your child can understand. It’s different for every age group. Explain as clearly as you can where in the body the disease is, how the disease will be treated, and how this will affect their life, including changes in the family.
Invite a professional or a close family member. If needed, they may help you discuss the illness with your child. You or another loved one should be with the child for support and security if another person provides the information.
Be truthful about things you cannot answer. It’s not always possible to promise that everything will work out well. Assure your child that he or she will be taken care of no matter what, and use this opportunity to tell your child about how you manage with the unknown.