Explaining cancer to children
Children need some information about the name of the cancer, where it is in the body and how it’ll be treated.
Here are some examples of how you can explain cancer to young children:
‘I have a lump growing inside my body (explain which part) that shouldn’t be there. It’s called cancer and I’m going to have an operation to take it away. After that, the doctor will give me medicine so that the lump doesn’t come back.’
‘I have an illness called cancer. The doctor is giving me medicine to help me get better. The medicine might make me feel sick or tired some days, but other days I’ll feel fine.‘
If your child asks you what cancer is – ‘Our bodies are made up of lots of tiny things called cells. They all have a different job to make our bodies work and keep us healthy. Cancer is when some cells in the body stop working properly and stop the healthy cells doing their jobs. The cancer cells can grow into a lump.’
Teenagers in particular may look for information about cancer on the internet.
You or your doctor could help them understand whether the information they find is accurate and relevant to your diagnosis.
We have a cancer information section specifically for teens and young adults.
Hope Support Services or Riprap might also be helpful. Riprap is a website for teenagers who have a parent with cancer. You can also search for other useful organisations that are here to help you.
Important points to get across
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Children, particularly those under 10 years old, often worry about things like causing the cancer or catching it. All children need reassurance that:
nothing they did or thought caused the cancer
cancer isn’t like a cold and you can’t catch it – it’s okay to sit close, hug or kiss
there will always be someone to take care of them
they can always ask you questions and talk to you about how they feel
you’ll listen to their worries and try to help them cope.
Who else needs to know?
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You’ll usually want to tell your close family and other adults who your children know and trust. Let them know what you’ve told your children – it’s important that your children get the same message from everyone. Let your children know who you’re going to tell and why.
It’s usually helpful to have a conversation with your children about who else needs to know, for example club leaders or their friends’ parents. Older children may have strong feelings about who should and shouldn’t know, so it’s good to talk this over with them. Some teenagers don’t want to be seen as different from their friends – but it’s important that certain people know and can be there to support them if they need it.
Teenagers may be facing exams or coursework at school, college or university. If they’re finding it difficult to keep up with their studies, it may be a good idea to speak with one of their teachers to find out whether any support is available.
You should speak to the teenager before doing this, as school or college may be one of the few places where things still feel ‘normal’, and they may be hesitant about letting people know. Asking them will also reaffirm their trust that you’re telling them everything and including them.
It may be important to speak to their school or college about how they’re coping. Teachers or staff can offer support, and they may notice issues or behaviours that aren’t always apparent at home.
It’s a good idea to let nursery/school teachers and the school nurse know. They can be sensitive to your child’s needs, and it will help them understand any unusual or difficult behaviour. Ask them to let you know if your child shows any signs of worrying behaviour. You can ask them to support your child by giving them more one-to-one time, or you can involve the school nurse or counsellor.
We have a Talking about your cancer toolkit which is aimed at helping teachers discuss cancer openly and honestly with 9–16-year-olds. The pack contains everything teachers need to give young people the facts about cancer. It includes lesson plans and DVD clips.