Teenagers: What to say about cancer

What’s the best way to tell your teenager that you have cancer? What words should you use? How will your teen react? All families are different, and no one can write the perfect script for you and your children – but what you say will depend on:

  • How your children are usually told about important family matters
  • Your children’s ages
  • How ready you are to talk with them

What teenagers need to know

There are ways to help teens better understand your illness:

  • Speak with your teenager as soon as you’re ready, and be as honest as possible. During your treatment, you’ll both want (and need) to talk openly and honestly with each other.
  • Tell teens that you won’t keep important information from them. They need to feel that they can trust you at this time.
  • Teens already know how the human body works, and most of them can handle medical information that’s not too complicated. A teenager would understand if you said, for example, “I have cancer and I need to have treatment. My doctors and I will decide what’s best for me, but here are some of the treatments that they could use.”
  • Spend some time with your teen in ways that have nothing to do with cancer or your treatment.
  • There will be times when you’ll want to speak privately with other adults about your illness. Let your teen know that you’re not hiding information, but that talking with friends helps you to feel better.

Common reactions

Teens don’t always react to a parent’s cancer diagnosis in ways that you might want or expect:

  • Instead of asking questions about your health, they might talk about how your cancer will personally affect them; they could say things that seem selfish, or even harsh. You might hear, for example, “You can’t go to the doctor today. You said you’d take me to the mall!”
  • Teens can think about problems that might come up in the future, and ask “what if” types of questions. For example, your teen might ask a blunt question, like “Who will take care of me if you die?”
  • Teenagers may have fears about your cancer that are worse than real life. It’s very important to know what your children are thinking. If you don’t know, ask.
  • Teens may have a hard time going out with friends, taking trips, or even going away to college if they feel that they have to take care of you. Let them know that learning to be independent is an important part of growing up.

Teenagers will sometimes want to join in as other adults talk about your cancer. They may also want to talk about spirituality and the “big questions” of life, like “Why are we here?” and “Why does God allow suffering?” It’s important to find a balance that lets all of you talk openly, without putting more of a burden on your teen than necessary.


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. 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.