Explaining treatment to children and teenagers

Knowing about your treatment and its side effects can prepare your child for what to expect. It can also help them feel less anxious.

Treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be described by their purpose – to remove, destroy or slow the growth of cancer cells. Try to explain the possible effects of these treatments on your usual routines, or how you look or feel. For example, telling children about changes to physical appearance in advance may help them adjust.

Side effects are often an expected part of treatment. But, if they see you looking unwell, some children may think your cancer is coming back. Reassure them that these effects will gradually fade after treatment and they don’t mean you’re getting worse.

After treatment, prepare your children to expect that it may take time for your energy to return to normal. Try involving them in things you’re doing to help your recovery, such as exercising or eating and sleeping well. And, importantly, let them know how they helped you feel better.

Explaining your cancer treatment

This page is about the cancer treatments you may have, and how to talk about these with children and teenagers. Knowing about your treatment and its side effects can prepare children for what to expect and help them feel less anxious. What they’ll need to know will depend on their age.

If you’re struggling to take it all in, it may help to talk to our cancer support specialists first. You can contact them by calling 0808 808 00 00. We have information about the type of cancer you have or its treatment, which may help you explain treatments to your children.

Explaining surgery

Explain that this is an operation and the doctor or surgeon will either:

  • remove the cancer
  • 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 are 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.

Explaining chemotherapy

Explain to them that chemotherapy is either:

  • medicine that destroys the cancer
  • 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.

Explaining radiotherapy

Explain to them that radiotherapy is either:

  • the use of x-rays or a laser beam to destroy the cancer
  • 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.

Explaining side effects

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 that 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. But remember not to ask them to do too much if they don’t want to.

Talking about changes to your physical appearance

Children usually cope well if they’re told in advance about any changes in your appearance. 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.

Talking about what may happen after treatment

After treatment, your children may expect things to get back to normal. They might 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 common 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, for you 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 if you’re still getting support from the hospital, a support group or online. Get them involved in things you are doing to help your recovery, such as:

  • doing some exercise, like going for 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 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 things are difficult, and don’t be afraid to say how proud you are of them. They may be more responsible, independent and sensitive to other people’s needs in the future.

It was helpful to have play dates organised for my son. I’m so grateful to the mums who regularly had my son to play. He comes home happy and tired.


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