How Do I Tell My Children I Have Cancer?

Strategies to help you break the news
Mother having serious talk with her daughter

Breaking the news to your child that you have cancer can be an emotional roller coaster. And there are no absolute right or wrong ways to do it. It’s like so much of life and parenting — you do the best you can.

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One of the first things that parents should know is that the words you use aren’t as important as simply letting your child know that you’re there for them. Also, it’s important to trust yourself. You know your kids best and what they can handle. Let your instincts be your main guide.

Josette Snyder, BSN, MSN and AOCN, offers more strategies that can help you explain this tough topic to your children.

Plan the first conversation

First, try to give yourself a little time before having the conversation when you break the news. Allow yourself to process the news and get a handle on it before talking to your children.

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Other things to consider:

  • Get moral and emotional support. Ask your spouse, partner or other trusted family member to be part of the first conversation.
  • Choose the right time — and take your time. Don’t give in to the temptation to get the initial conversation over with quickly by picking a time that’s right before other commitments or bedtime.
  • Be on the same page as your partner. Make sure you both agree about how much you’ll reveal in this first conversation. Go over the topics you need to cover, such as how treatment will affect you physically and how it will change what you’ll be able to do day-to-day.

Breaking the news about your diagnosis

When you do tell your children you have cancer, be honest and direct. Don’t be afraid to use the word “cancer.” Kids, no matter their age, sense when something’s wrong and you’re not telling them the truth, which only makes their fears worse.

Other tips to keep in mind:

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  • Keep the language very simple. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information because they might have a hard time processing it all; think of this as the first in a series of conversations.
  • Guide the conversation as much as you can. You’re there to inform and support your children, so you want to do your best to stay in control.
  • It’s OK to say “I don’t know.” If your child asks you something you don’t have an answer for, tell the truth. Say you’ll talk to your doctor and find out for both of you.
  • Show you’re coping. Maintain a calm, reassuring voice to show your children that you’re coping and you can help them do that too.
  • Don’t be afraid to share sadness. You can’t possibly prepare for every reaction with such emotional news — that’s normal. It’s OK to share your sadness with your children, to reinforce you’re all in this together.

Children of different ages react differently to the news of a cancer diagnosis. Remember: trust yourself. You know your children best. Be there for them and keep the conversation going.

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