School-age children: What to say about cancer

It’s not easy to talk with children aged 6 to 12 years old about the fact that you have cancer. You probably have questions about what words to use, and what reactions to expect. All families are different, and no one can write the perfect script for you and your child. But there are important things to keep in mind.

What you decide to tell your children will depend on many important things, such as:

  • The way in which you and your partner usually talk with your children about important family matters
  • Your children’s age and their ability to understand cancer
  • How ready you are to talk with them

What your child needs to know

Child development experts have learned what worries school aged children when their parent has cancer. Knowing these worries may help you decide what to say.

  • Give them simple, concrete information. You might say something like “There is a lump growing in my body that the doctors need to take out.”
  • Encourage them to ask you questions and emphasize that you will do your best to answer them.
  • Be as honest as possible with your children. Children often have fears that are worse than reality. Talking with them as soon as you are ready helps to begin the open, supportive, honest communication needed during your treatment.
  • Don’t underestimate your children’s ability to understand spoken and unspoken information. It is important that you protect them from your conversations with other adults with whom you may want to discuss your health concerns in more depth. Even if they may not grasp everything that you are talking about with other adults, they will know that it is something serious, sad or scary by your tone of voice.
  • Talk to them in an age-appropriate way.

Common reactions

It’s important to remember that school-age children have probably heard of cancer before, and have formed ideas about it. The following reactions are common:

  • Return to behavior they had when they are younger, when stressed
  • They likely have heard about people dying from cancer and think that is going to happen to their parents. You need to be able to talk about this and reassure them that your goal is to get better
  • School-aged children may worry about you more than is necessary. Children have an active mind and a lot of imagination. They also may have inaccurate information about cancer. They need to know the facts from you.

While it can be hard, you want your children to feel comfortable coming to you at any time, with any question, and any worry.


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

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

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