Feb 07, 2022 9:00 AM

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Illustration parent and child foxes touching noses with text: Helping kids when a Loved One Has Cancer

Updated February 2022

How to Talk to Kids about Cancer

If you’re a parent and you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you may worry how to tell your children. These tips will help guide you in talking with your kids about your diagnosis and treatment.

Illustration of parent and child wolves holding paws with text: Encourage questions, Find out what they already know, Be honest

Why Kids Need to Know

Children are quick to pick up on stress in the family. Many times, their imagined fears are worse than what is really happening. Studies show that children need accurate information that is right for their age when a parent or loved one has cancer.

When Kids Need to Know

Talk to your child as soon as you feel comfortable. Children often feel hurt if they learn about a loved one’s illness from someone else.

What Kids Need to Know

Children and teens need to know when someone in the family has cancer. Your child will want to know where the cancer is in the body. It’s important to use the word “cancer,” because it is different from other illnesses.

  • Make sure your child knows they did not cause the disease.
  • Explain that you cannot “catch” cancer.
  • Let your child know that many people survive cancer.

Kids can learn and grow from a loved one’s illness. This challenge may help everyone in your family be more sensitive and kind. Getting through this stressful time can also bring a feeling of pride and self-worth for kids and grown-ups.

Illustration of parent and child bears sitting in the sun with text: Name grown-ups who can help, Avoid making promises, Let them know what they can expect

Ways to Help Kids Cope when a Loved One Has Cancer

Here are some ways to help kids cope when a parent or loved one has cancer.

Talk to Them

  • Encourage your kids to ask questions without pushing them to talk.
  • Find out what your child knows about cancer to help address any misconceptions or ideas. You may be surprised!
  • Ask questions that need more than yes-or-no answers. Here are some examples:
    • What is the most confusing part of Mom’s cancer?
    • What do your friends say to you about my cancer?
  • Encourage your child to express thoughts and feelings.
  • Share your own thoughts and feelings with your child.

Give Them Helpful Information

  • Let your kids know what to expect along the way. This will help them prepare for changes and possible side effects.
  • Help your children name grown-ups they can go to for support or to talk.
  • Make sure your children know who will take care of them if you need to be hospitalized.
  • Avoid making promises you’re not sure you can keep.
  • Don’t worry your kids with details they can’t do anything about, such as money problems.

Manage Their Time

  • Make simple changes to help focus on each other:
    • Sit down to meals together.
    • Limit visitors.
    • Turn off phones.
  • When the person with cancer isn’t feeling well, plan play dates or fun activities with others.
  • Do your best to keep a regular structure and routine.
  • Give your child options about ways to help around the house.
Illustration of parent and child rabbits picking flowers with text: Spend time together, Plan playdates and activities, Try to keep a regular routine

Here is a collection of books that may be found at our Cancer Learning Center, your local library, bookstores, or online. The books are divided by age into two lists: books on supporting children and families coping with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and books to support children and families coping with grief and death.

Social workers and child life specialists at Huntsman Cancer Institute are great resources for information and talking to your children about cancer. You can contact the social work team at 801-213-5699 and child life specialists at 801-213-4292 or abbie.lofgren@hci.utah.edu.

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Cancer touches all of us.

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