Depending on the age of your children, it might be difficult to know how or what to tell your children about your cancer diagnosis, treatment or prognosis. Even so, it’s important to be honest with children because:
- They will know something is wrong anyway.
- Children may imagine the worst if they are not told otherwise.
- Children can feel isolated or anxious if they aren’t told about what is happening around them.
- They may feel betrayed or stop trusting you if they hear the news from someone else.
- If you pretend that everything is fine, children may feel that they have to keep their worries to themselves. They may not be able to tell you how they feel.
How to tell children about cancer
- Choose a time to talk when you’re feeling calm. You may want to practise or role-play what you want to say with a partner, relative or friend.
- Try to have another adult present. That way, children will know that there are other adults they can talk to who will support them. If you have a partner, try to talk to children together. If you’re a single parent, you could ask a close relative or friend to be there. A social worker, nurse or doctor may also be able to help with difficult discussions or help answer questions about cancer and treatment.
- Consider having separate discussions if the children are far apart in age or have very different personalities. You can make sure that each child has the time and place to listen and ask questions.
- Try to find out what your children know about cancer and where they learned about it.
- Be prepared to repeat the information, perhaps many times.
- Keep checking that children understand what you are saying.
- Be honest and open, even if the news isn’t good. This helps maintain trust and keeps the lines of communication open.
- Give children time and the chance to ask questions and express their feelings.
What to tell children about cancer
You will be the best judge of how much your child will understand about the situation. In general, children need to know at least enough to be prepared for changes to their routine and day-to-day life.
- Tell them some basic information, such as the name of the cancer, the body part it affects, the treatment and its possible side effects. Try to use terms that children will understand. For example say “doctor” instead of “oncologist” or “medicine” instead of “chemotherapy.”
- Be clear and direct and open to talking about your cancer. Don’t create a feeling that cancer should be a secret by whispering or using terms like “the big C.”
- Reassure children that they cannot “catch” cancer from you.
- Tell children that nothing they did caused the cancer. Children, especially younger children, may worry that the cancer is their fault or happened because they did something wrong.
- Reassure them that you will let them know what is happening and if anything changes.
- Let them know that they can come with you to see the cancer treatment centre and meet your healthcare team. They may say they don’t want to go, but at least they will know that you are open to sharing your cancer journey with them.
- Explain to children how their lives might change. Kids thrive on routine. Cancer treatment can disrupt those routines, so it is important to prepare them for possible changes to school, chores or other activities.
- Don’t be afraid to tell children about your feelings, if you want to. It may help them express their own feelings.
- Tell children how much you love them.
- Be optimistic – there are lots of new treatments and reasons to be hopeful.
Also try to tell other adults in your children’s lives (teachers, coaches and relatives) about what’s going on. These adults may help maintain your children’s routines, as well as listen to their feelings and concerns. They can tell you about any problems that your children may have at school or other activities.
If children ask about death
You may want to prepare yourself to talk about death in case your children ask about it. Many kids may think about it, but do not ask. What you tell children about death will depend on many things, including the type of cancer you have, how easy it is to treat, the stage of the cancer and what the doctor has told you.
It’s important to let children know that you’re willing to tell them the truth and that you’ll keep talking to them as you get more information. You could say:
- “I don’t know what will happen in the future, so let’s think about what’s going on right now. I promise that I will tell you when I find out new information. I want you to ask me any questions you have and I’ll do my best to answer them.”
- “The doctors have told me that my chances of getting better are very good. I believe them and I want you to believe them too. I’ll tell you if that changes.”
- “Sometimes people do die from cancer. I don’t think that will happen to me because the doctors have told me that they have very good treatments these days.”
- “I don’t know what is going to happen right now. I’ll know more after the first treatments are finished. I will tell you then.”
- “My cancer is treatable and my doctors are doing everything to help me get better.”
Now I know that I will help someone with cancer even after I’m gone. It’s a footprint I want to leave behind me.
Great progress has been made
Some cancers, such as thyroid and testicular, have survival rates of over 90%. Other cancers, such as pancreatic, brain and esophageal, continue to have very low survival rates.