How Do I Tell My Children I Have Cancer?

Strategies to help you through breaking the news

dad talking to his daughter

Breaking the news to your child that you have cancer is 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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We offer parents strategies, though, that can help you through.

One of the first things we tell parents is that the words you use aren’t as important as letting your child know you’re there for them, that they are a part of what’s going on.

We also say, Trust yourself. You know your kids best and what they can handle. Let your instincts be your main guide.

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Plan the first conversation

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

  • Get some 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 are both on the same page about how much you 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 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.

  • Keep the language very simple. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information that they may have a hard time processing; 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 you child asks you something you don’t have an answer for, tell the truth if you don’t know. 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.

We know children of different ages react differently to news of a cancer diagnosis. Here are helpful ideas for age-appropriate conversations when talking to children about cancer.

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Remember: trust yourself. You know your children best. Just be there for them. And keep the conversation going.

More information

Cancer Answer Line

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