Young children: How much to say about cancer?

Having chosen to talk with your children under age 6 honestly about your cancer, you may now be worried about how much information you can and should provide. The following may serve as a basic guide for how much to share.

What your young child needs to know

  • Even if you don’t have all the information about your treatment, it is important to tell your children “cancer is serious, but can be treated.”
  • Children need to know the basics about treatment:
    • How long it is expected to take
    • Doctors are working hard to make you feel better
    • You are hopeful about getting better
    • The change they may see as the result of your treatment.
  • Discuss what will occur during the next few days and weeks.
  • Ask yourself, “What is most important for my children to know now?”
  • Remind them that it is not contagious and that it is nobody’s fault.
  • Be alert to when they have enough information, stop paying attention, and want to go back to other activities.
  • Be prepared to repeat the same information many times.
  • Focus on what will happen in the next few days.
  • Be prepared for questions like, “How long will you be sick?” “Who will care for me?” “What’s going to happen to you today?”

Common reactions

Young children may have the following reactions to information about your cancer:

  • They may have simple, practical concerns about things that are happening right now, such as, “will you still read me a story tonight?” or “can I still play outside with Pepe tomorrow?”
  • They may not understand the meaning of a length of time, like a week or a month, and not have the ability to think very far into the future.
  • Young children may act as though they have not heard anything that you just said about your illness/treatment, but they are listening.

Young children need to reassurance that their life will remain the same as you can make it, and that you will always prepare them for changes.


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