Talking to children about Cancer

Talking to children about cancer


“ A child can live though anything, so long as he or she is told the truth and is allowed to share with loved ones the natural feelings people have when they  are suffering”

                                                                                    (LeShan 1976)


Parents and caregivers want to protect children and help them to be as happy as they can. This includes the desire to shield them from knowing about a cancer diagnosis. Cancer affects the whole family, children included. Children know when something is wrong, they are very sensitive to tension and stress.  You may wish to protect them and not disclose that you are unwell. You may tell them you are unwell but not mentioning the word cancer. If you try to protect them by remaining silent on the issue, they may fear something much worse than the reality of the situation. Not talking or mentioning the word cancer may suggest it is a subject too terrible to be discussed, and can lead children to have an exaggerated fear of cancer or illness later on.  Children will eventually find out the truth, it is very difficult to have your guard up all the time. They may find out from a cousin, school and family friend.  Children can feel very isolated if not told about the diagnosis and it may diminish their role in the family that they were not important enough to be told.


The Benefits of Talking to Children


The benefits of telling your child about your diagnosis is that they will be able to come and talk to you or other family members if they have questions. You will not need to watch what you or others have to say all the time. Holding a secret is very exhausting work, you need your energy elsewhere!  Adults often underestimate the child ability to deal with the truth; It can often be a reflection of how the adult is coming to terms with the diagnosis. The not knowing can cause anxiety for children when can spill over into their life outside the home, particularly in school.  Notifying the school about the diagnosis around the same time as you tell your child is very important. The school can assist your child and support them outside the home. We cannot stop children feeling sad, it is a natural part of life. However we can support them in their sadness and teach them valuable life long lessons around the benefits of open communication.


How to Talk to you Child/Children about a Cancer Diagnosis


If asked, children would want to hear about the news from their parents rather than anyone else. It is a very difficult conversation to have and there are no easy easy ways of saying it. It is important to get the timing of the conversation right. Make sure you block off a significant amount of time. You are the expert when it comes to your child/children so you will know when they are most relaxed. Often the car can be a good place to have difficult conversations or taking a walk.  The key is to be gentle and at a pace that is manageable for them. It is ok to get upset and cry-it is upsetting. Seeing you cry gives a child permission to express their own feelings and emotions. If you have more than one child you may want to talk to them individually. It will depend on their age and the different needs they have.  Some children ask many questions when new information is shared other not so many. You know your child better than anyone. The goal is to keep the dialogue open so that they can ask in the coming days, weeks and months ahead.


You could begin a conversation with your child by asking them what they know about the situation so far?  If a child uses the word cancer ask them to clarify what they mean by that. Sometimes adults can avoid using the word “cancer” and may use the word “tumor” or “bump” as they think it is less scary for children to hear the words “sick” or “cancer”.  This is confusing for children. Explain what the illness is by using the word “cancer”.


Tell them

How your health will be affected.

Explain the treatment plan in language that is clear and simple.

 Let them know that it effects how you feel and think as it takes up a lots of time and energy right now.

Offer reassurance that their routine will have minimal changes.

Emphasize that cancer is not contagious, reassure them that they cannot “catch” it.

That the illness is not anyone’s fault

Discuss with them how they can be involved

Focus on love and support that you have for one another at the end of the conversation


Don’t forget to tell the school and key figures in the young persons life. The more people you have looking out for and supporting your child/children the better it is for them and you.








Recommended Reading:


The Secret C: Straight Talking about Cancer

Julie A. Stokes

Winston’s Wish, 2000


When Someone You Love Has Cancer

A Guide to Help Kids Cope

Alaric Lewis


Talking to Chidren –Information and Support

The Huge Bag of Worries

Virginia Ironside 2016


No Matter What

Debi Gliori





Speak to the social worker connected to your treatment center who will be able to support and advise you during this process. 

Web Pages

This helpful website gives you a practical guide as well as providing age specific responses and real case examples from parents.

Irish Cancer Society

Booklet "Talking to Children about Cancer"


 Climb® (Children’s lives Include Moments of Bravery) is a program for children aged 5-12 who are experiencing the impact of a parent’s or significant other’s cancer diagnosis. It is run over 6 weeks in the evening. The programs aim is to support children and their feelings around a cancer diagnosis though the use of drama, art and play. Contact your Social Worker for details or the Irish Cancer Society.


What Children Really Want to Know


Will they be ok?

What will it feel like?

What happens after death?

Will I be ok?

Is it my fault?

Will it happen to me too?

Who will take care of me/my family/my things

What happens to the relationship?


The long Term: Life without a Parent


One of the biggest cause of stress for a parent with a terminal illness is how will the child/children cope when I am not around. While it is unbearable to imagine, it is most important to be aware that children are very resilient and despite the loss can grown up to live well adjusted lives while still being connected to the deceased parent. As a parent you have a real opportunity to support you child in a way that a sudden death does not lend its self to.


Memory Boxes

Some parents wish to leave behind a memory box or book for their child/children. This is a wonderful way for your child to feel connected to you when you are no longer around. You can include writings, photos, presents with meaning (jewelry for example..”I want you to have this as you always played with it when I wore it as a baby….”), ideas and wishes about the future.  Should you require professions support or guidance with this contact your palliative social worker in the community or in the hospital.




 Winstons Wish (



Recommended Reading


When Your Parent has Cancer – A Guide for Teens.

National Cancer Institute, 2012



Talking to Children When Someone Close is ill

Marie Curie Cancer Care


Why Mum? A Small Child with a Big Problem

Catherine Thornton

Veritas, 2005


Gentle Willow

A story for Children about Dying

Joyce Mills 2004


Always and Forever

Debi Gliori and Alan Durant 2013


Badger’s Parting Gifts

Susan Varley



Childrens Work Books.


When Someone Has a Very Serious Illness:

Children Can Learn to Cope with Loss and Change

Marge Heegaard

Woodlands Press, 1942


What’s Dead Mean?

How to help children cope with death.

Dorris Zagdanski 2010


Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine

Your activity book to help when someone has died

Diana Crossley

Winstons Wish

Last modified: Sunday, 21 May 2017, 10:13 PM