Explaining cancer treatment to children
This page is about the cancer treatments you may have, and how to talk about these with children and teenagers.
If you’re struggling to take it all in yourself, it may help to talk to our cancer support specialists first. We also have information about your type of cancer or treatment, which may help you explain treatments to your children. What they'll need to know will depend on their age.
Explain that this is an operation and the doctor/surgeon will:
cut out the cancer, or
remove the part of the body where the cancer is.
Before your children visit you in hospital, prepare them for how you’ll be after the operation. For example, if you’ll have drips or tubes, tell them what they’re for and explain that you’ll only have them for a short time to help you get better.
If children want to look at a scar, it’s usually fine to let them see it, but it may be best to wait until the swelling and redness settle down. If they’re not interested or seem reluctant to look, don’t push them.
Explain to them that chemotherapy is:
special medicine that destroys the cancer, or
special medicine that stops or slows down the growth of cancer cells.
It’s also helpful to tell children how the chemotherapy may change your routine and how it may make you feel. Let them know that:
chemotherapy can sometimes make you feel sick, but that you’ll take other medicine to stop the sickness
chemotherapy can make you feel very tired, so you’ll usually need to get lots of rest or sleep after having it
your hair may fall out, and if it does, you’ll be able to wear a wig, bandana or hat – you can reassure them that your hair will grow back again after the chemotherapy finishes.
germs don’t cause cancer but chemotherapy can make it easier for you to catch a cold or infection.
Explain to them that radiotherapy is:
the use of x-rays or a laser beam to destroy the cancer, or
strong x-rays given to the part of the body where the cancer is to destroy the cancer cells so they can’t grow.
Depending on where you’re having the radiotherapy, you can explain that:
it can make the skin in the area being treated a bit red and sore
it makes you feel very tired, even after it’s finished, so you’ll need to rest a lot.
Children need to know that side effects will usually go away when your treatment is finished, but that this is often gradual. They should also know that side effects don’t mean you’re getting sicker and that not everyone gets the same side effects. Some children may worry that the cancer is getting worse if they see you unwell, or they may think that the treatment isn’t working if you don’t get side effects.
Tell your children that treatment can be hard and it’s normal for you to feel down or frustrated at times, but it’s not because of anything they’ve done. Help them feel involved by asking them to get you a drink or to do little things to help around the house.
Changes in physical appearance
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Children usually cope and adjust well if they’re told about any changes in your appearance in advance. Younger children, particularly those under 10 years old, struggle most with this. Letting them know in a matter-of-fact way is often the easiest way to explain things. Older children may feel embarrassed and want to avoid talking about it. If you’re struggling to cope with it yourself, you may prefer someone else to explain it to them or to get further help.
After treatment, your children may expect things to get back to normal and find it difficult to understand why that’s not always simple.
You’ll probably feel very tired and may still be coping with side effects. It’s also not uncommon to feel anxious and isolated, and to miss the support you had during treatment. This is normal and it takes time for everyone to adjust to life after treatment.
It’s a good idea to prepare your children for the fact that it’s going to take time, possibly months, to get your energy back. Be positive about the things you can do now treatment is over. Tell them about new changes to family life and routines – for example, if you’ll be picking them up from school or if you won’t be going back to work for a few months.
Tell them that you’re still getting support from the hospital, from a support group or online. Get them involved in things you’re doing to help your recovery, such as:
taking some exercise like short walks to help to build up your energy levels
eating well – tell them about foods that are healthy to eat and encourage them to try them
making sure you all get enough sleep – explain how important this is for your recovery and for their growth
asking them to carry on helping around the house.
Keep being open with your children. Let them know you’re still there to listen to them and that they can talk to you about their worries. They may be worrying about you staying well, and younger children will probably still be clingy. Explain that you’ll be going to the hospital for check-ups to make sure you’re well. They’ll need to know that you can still get everyday illnesses like colds, but that this doesn’t mean the cancer has come back.
Acknowledge that you’ve all been through something difficult together and how they’ve helped you to get better. This can be particularly important for teenagers. Things usually gradually get back to normal as everyday life takes over from the cancer.
Despite all the difficulties, cancer may bring some positive things to your family life. Being open and honest with your children can make you feel closer. You can feel proud of how your children have learned to cope when life doesn’t go to plan. And don’t be afraid to say how proud you are of them. They may be more responsible, independent and more sensitive to other people’s needs in the future.