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Explaining cancer to young children

Written by: Peggy Rios, Ph.D.
Published: Friday, November 21, 2008
Reviewed by: Evelyn Corsini, MSW, November 2008

Explaining cancer to young children

Cancer can be a tough disease for people to understand, because there are so many different types of cancer and ways to treat it. Even though your health care team has explained the diagnosis to you, and has made suggestions about your treatment, you may still have a lot of questions. How will you explain cancer to your young children, if you’re not sure that you understand it well enough on your own?

Helping young children understand cancer

Here are some guidelines for talking about cancer with young children:

  • Explain cancer by using examples and words that children can understand. Long and complicated explanations will go right over their heads.
  • Young children will get the most out of a simple, clear description of your cancer. You could say, for example, “Cancer is a small lump in my body. It doesn’t belong there and the doctors are going to make me better by taking it out, or by giving me some medicine so it will go away.”
  • Ask your oncology nurse or oncology social worker for suggestions of some good children’s books that might help explain cancer to your child.
  • Make sure your children know that your cancer is not their fault, or anyone else’s fault: You didn’t get cancer, for example, because your child yelled at you one day. You might have to repeat this fact to your child many times during your illness.
  • Tell your children that they can’t “catch” cancer from you like they might catch a cold from someone else.
  • Your children may ask questions that are similar to ones that you first asked, like: “How come you got cancer?” and “When will you get better?”
  • It’s okay not to know the answers to all of your children’s questions. Tell them that you’ll ask your doctor and will let them know what you find out.
  • If you need help talking with your young children about cancer, a member of your medical team should be able to meet with them to explain what’s happening.

Common reactions of very young children: 

  • Very young children may get upset if they see that you’re crying, or if you have to leave them more often, or if you can’t pick them up or play with them as usual. This is normal. The things that you do – or don’t do – can have as much impact on your children as the things that you say.
  • Young children will worry about who will take care of them if you’re sick. Give them a lot of reassurance that things are OK, and that you (and other loved ones) will continue to care for them.

References

American Cancer Society. (2005). Helping children when a family member has cancer. www.cancer.org.

Blum, D. CancerCare Connect. (2005) Helping children when a family member has cancer. Retrieved 6/30/08 from www.cancercare.org.

Harpham, W. (1997). When a parent has cancer: a guide to caring for your children. New York: HarperCollins.

National Cancer Institute (n.d.) When someone in your family has cancer. Retrieved 7/1/08 from www.cancer.gov.