How to Talk to Children About Cancer

Mother with cancer touching daughter's hand from bed

As a parent, you may want to protect your children from distressing news, such as telling them a family member has cancer. Although it may be challenging, it is better to talk openly with your children about cancer rather than avoiding it. Children can sense when something is wrong. They may also overhear conversations that can cause confusion and provide them with misleading information. Being honest and sharing information early builds trust and keeps children from imagining things that are not true.

The first conversation about cancer is often the hardest. Here are a few communication tips on how to talk with your children if someone they know is diagnosed with cancer:

  • Use a calm and reassuring voice, but it’s okay if you become sad or start to cry. When children see a parent become sad or cry, it shows them that it’s okay for them to feel the same.
  • Use age-appropriate language. You are the best judge of how much information to share with your children. Young children will not need a lot of detailed information and will tend to focus on what they can see, such as hair loss. For older children, providing more details can help reduce feelings of helplessness and fear.
  • Provide information gradually. Tell them what they need to know immediately and then share as much information as they seem to want and are ready to handle. Having frequent conversations will give children the chance to absorb information at their own pace.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the word cancer. Explain that cancer is an illness and show them – on a picture or diagram – where the cancer is in the body. Make it clear that, although cancer is an illness, it is not contagious and they cannot catch cancer like they can catch a cold.
  • Explain the treatment plan. Your children may hear words such as chemotherapy or radiation. Be sure they understand these words. Prepare your children for possible physical changes, such as hair or weight loss, before these changes happen. Explain that, although the treatment may cause these side effects, it is helping the person with cancer get better.
  • Explain how it will affect their lives, especially if a parent or sibling has cancer. Try to keep your routines consistent, but prepare your children for the future, and help them understand some things are going to change. Tell them about events that can be especially disruptive, such as hospitalizations and surgeries, in advance. Consider taking your children to visit the treatment center or hospital to meet with caregivers; this can make the situation and upcoming events seem less frightening.
  • Provide opportunities for your children to help or stay in touch. You may find that your child wants to help but does not know what to do. Making cards and gifts or visiting an ill family member can help them feel connected and reduce feelings of helplessness.

Children tend to worry more if they feel that important information is being kept from them. Let your children know that they can ask questions and talk about their feelings. Talking with your children honestly and helping them express their emotions will help them cope with whatever changes lie ahead.


CancerCare. (2012). Helping children when a family member has cancer. New York: CancerCare. Retrieved from: helping_children_when_a_family_member_has_cancer

Cancer.Net. Talking about cancer: Talking with your children. Retrieved September 2017 from

Dana Farber Cancer Institute. For Parents: Talking to your children about cancer. Boston: Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Retrieved September 2017 from

Schnipper, H. H. (2017). Your cancer guide: Talking with your young children. Philadelphia: American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Retrieved from

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