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How to Tell Your Kids That You Have Cancer

7 Essential Questions You’ll Need to Answer

by Barbara J. Golby, LCSW-R

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For any parent diagnosed with cancer, how your diagnosis will affect your children is a top con­cern. This is especially true for parents of young children or teenagers still living at home. Not wanting to worry or upset them, many parents feel unsure about how to tell their children they have can­cer. Some even question whether they should discuss it with their children at all.

The truth is, telling your children that you have cancer will likely be harder for you than it is for them. Having this difficult conversation will force you to confront your own fears and worries about not being there for them. And while you may think that by avoid­ing the discussion, you are protecting your children from that worry and fear, the opposite is usually true. When handled with sensitivity and care, talking with your children about cancer can actually reduce their anxiety levels.

There are some essential questions that most children and teenagers will want answered when you tell them you have cancer. Even if they don’t ask, you should be prepared to give your children age-appropriate answers to these seven essential questions.

1 What is cancer?
Most children will need at least a basic explanation of what cancer is. Keep your answers simple and tailored to your child’s developmental level. Be prepared to elaborate for very curious children or for older children and teens. If your child asks a question you don’t know how to answer, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know, but I can find out for you.”

The truth is, telling your children that you have cancer
will likely be harder for you than it is for them.

Author of Article photo

Barbara Golby

2 How did you get cancer?
This can be a difficult question to answer since we often don’t know why people get cancer. Be honest with your children about the uncertainties of cancer. You may not have all the answers, but you can be there for them as you face the unknowns together.

3 Did I do something to give you cancer?
Reassure your children that they did nothing to cause your cancer, even if they don’t ask. And reiterate this point as often as needed for them to internalize it.

4 Will I get cancer too?
Explain to your children that you can’t catch cancer like a cold. They can still hug and kiss you. Cancer isn’t contagious.

5 Who will take care of me if you can’t?
Children are naturally self-focused. They may worry about how your cancer will affect their lives, and this is a nor­mal concern. Help alleviate their anxiety by preparing them for how their day-to-day life is going to change. Lay out a plan for who will take them to violin lessons, make dinner, or get them ready for bed if you cannot.

6 Are you going to die?
Every parent with cancer dreads this question. Rather than fearing it, try to view it as an opportunity to connect with your children as they open up to you about one of their biggest fears. Let them know that you welcome their questions, no matter how difficult. Reassure your children that most people who have cancer do not die and that you are get­ting the best treatment possible to fight the cancer. If your disease is more ad­vanced, let them know that you and your doctors are doing everything you can to stay well. Reassure your chil­dren that you will keep them updated on how things are going.

7 Who can I talk to about this?
Your children will likely not ask you this question directly. Regardless, it’s important to let them know that it’s okay to talk about cancer, with you or with another trusted adult. Give them the names of other adults they can talk to if they find it difficult to come to you with their questions and concerns. You may even want to sched­ule regular family meetings to give medical updates, answer questions, and talk about how things are going.

Telling your kids that you have cancer is the first of many conversations you will have with them about your illness. Most children and teens do want to be included in family discus­sions about their parent’s cancer. When you talk openly and honestly with your children about your cancer, it lets them know they are part of the process, builds trust within the family, and helps them feel less alone.

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Barbara Golby is a senior clinical social worker at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY. She has worked for 18 years with families and children living with serious medical illness.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2015.