Explaining cancer to school-age 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 school-age children, if you’re not sure that you understand it well enough on your own?

Helping school-age children understand cancer

Many school-age children have heard of cancer. They may be able to understand a basic explanation of your illness. Here are some ways to help:

  • Explain cancer by using your own words, and not your doctor’s medical language. You’re the best judge of the types of words and ideas that will help your children learn about your diagnosis.
  • Ask your children what they already know about cancer. Try to clear up any wrong information that they’ve read or heard.
  • School-age children may be able to understand that cancer is cells that are growing out of control.
  • Give your children a basic idea of how your cancer will be treated: with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of treatments.
  • Explain that your cancer is not your child’s fault, or anyone else’s fault. Nothing that your child said or did caused your cancer.
  • 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.
  • Ask your health care team for more ideas about talking with your children about your diagnosis.

Common reactions of school-age children:

  • The older your children are, the better able they’ll be to understand about cancer and your treatments.
  • Because school-age children are learning about science topics in school, it may make them feel better to learn about your cancer, too.
  • School-age children may feel that they’re responsible for your illness, as well as your cure.


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

Blum, D. CancerCare Connect. (2005) Helping children when a family member has cancer. Recuperado 6/30/08 de 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. Recuperado 7/1/08 de www.cancer.gov.