Explaining cancer to children and teenagers

You may not know how to explain cancer to your children. Being honest, specific and using simple language is usually a good approach. What they’ll need to know and how they will react depends on their age. Drawings or books may help younger children understand. You may need to encourage teenagers to ask questions.

Tell children the name of the cancer, where it is in your body and how it will be treated. Explain that cancer isn’t like a cold that can be caught. Reassure them that nothing they did caused the cancer and there will always be someone there to look after them. Asking open questions can encourage children to express their feelings and guide the conversation.

If your child has learning disabilities, you may find they cope better if they are involved in the situation and are prepared for it. Explain how the cancer might affect their routines and tell them about any physical changes that you might go through.

Explaining cancer

Children need some information about the name of the cancer, where it is in the body and how it will 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. They may find it helpful to visit the Macmillan website, Hope Support Services or Riprap. Riprap is a website for teenagers who have a parent with cancer. 

Teenagers may know what cancer is from experience. They may have been taught about it at school or have a friend with cancer. Some of their friends may have family members who’ve had cancer. You could talk to them about what they know if you think that would help.

Telling my daughter was one of the worst things I had to do. I thought “How do you explain cancer to an eight-year-old?” But I think she was glad we did.


Important points to get across

Children, particularly those under 10 years old, often worry about things like causing the cancer or catching it. 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.

I decided to be open with my children, and promised I’d always tell them the truth. It meant they could ask me anything that was worrying them – and they have.


Children with learning disabilities

Children with learning disabilities can find change hard. But in most situations, they will cope better if they are involved in a situation and are prepared for it. As you’re closest to the child, it’s up to you and your family how much information you think needs to be shared. Remember to explain any possible changes in routines and also physical changes that you might go through. You might be scared of telling your child, but it’s likely that they’ll cope better with the changes if you are honest with them.

Try using calendars or timelines that show your appointments or when you will be in hospital, and your child’s activities. This can help them see what is happening and when it will happen. It will help the child see how your treatment will fit in with their lives. It will also remind them of the things that are staying the same in their lives.

Using visual supports can help explain what is happening. You might have to explain your situation more than once, especially if you are having a long course of treatment.

Try to keep their routine the same. Keep things that they are used to around them and explain what is happening every day. Reassure your child that they are coping well with the change.

It might be useful to involve any support workers involved in the child’s care.

The National Autistic Society has more information.

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