Explaining cancer to teenagers

It can be hard to explain cancer to your teenager — not just because it’s a complicated disease and you may still have questions, but because of your own strong feelings about the diagnosis. Some people ask if a member of their health care team can meet with their teenager to explain it. Most teenagers have already heard of cancer, though, and have their own ideas about it. It’s important to help them sort out the facts from any wrong information that they may have read or been told.

Helping teenagers understand cancer

  • Ask your teenagers what they already know about cancer. The Internet is the first source of information for many teens, but it’s not always the source of correct information.
  • Teenagers should be able to understand that cancer is the result of cells that grow out of control.
  • Explain the different types of cancer treatments. Share what will happen during your own treatments, including the timing of the treatments, any side effects, and other problems that might happen.
  • Older teenagers may want to read some of the same medical information that has helped you understand your diagnosis.
  • Your teen 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 if you don’t know the answers to all of your teen’s questions. Say that you’ll share her questions with your doctor, and will let her know what you find out.

Common reactions:

  • Many teenagers have a good understanding of biology and how the body and its cells work. As a result, they may bring up questions that you’ve never even considered.
  • Teens may understand words like malignancytumor, and metastasis, and want you to use these terms when talking about your cancer.
  • Teenagers may worry whether your type of cancer is genetic: Is it passed down through families? Will they get the same type of cancer when they’re your age?
  • Teenagers spend time thinking about the future, and they may ask a lot of “what if” questions that you can’t answer. Some of these questions may also be hard for you to talk about. If so, ask other family members or friends to discuss them with your teen instead.


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.