School age children: How much to say about cancer?

Having chosen to talk with your children honestly about your cancer, you may now be worried about how much information you can and should give children who are ages 6 to 12. Keep the following in mind when deciding how much to share.

What your child needs to know

  • Even if you do not have all the information about your treatment, it is important to tell your children something like, “cancer is a serious, but treatable disease.”
  • Children need to be told a few basic things about treatment:
    • How long it is expected to take
    • Doctors are working hard to make you feel better
    • You are hopeful about getting better
    • What kinds of physical behavioral changes you may experience
  • Discuss what will occur during the next few days and weeks

What to tell your school-age children

  • Give specific real examples of what may occur. For example, “I will not always be able to take you to soccer practice, so you will go with auntie sometimes.”
  • Explain the real facts about cancer many times:
    • You did not cause it
    • You cannot get it

Common reactions

Six year olds and twelve year olds have different abilities to understand concepts. Preteens may think more about the time-frame of your illness, and how long things will be different. They may worry about family activities, holidays, school and sports function. Younger children may have a harder time thinking ahead.

School-age children may have the following reactions:

  • They may ask questions showing their interest in the “bigger picture” of how you will feel as you go through treatment
  • They may want details about how your treatment will affect them.
  • They may show their concern by sometimes having these symptoms:
    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Withdrawal from friends
    • Problems sleeping
    • Changes in eating habits
    • Behaving like a younger child when they experience stress

Trying to keep their routine normal, and preparing them for changes, will help your school-age child.


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