Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Talking with Children about Cancer program is designed to help adults with cancer communicate with their children about their illness. As part of the program, social workers provide guidance on how parents with cancer can discuss the topic with children of all ages.
Our social workers recommend offering clear, simple, honest information about your cancer. Keep explanations brief and use language appropriate to your child’s developmental age. This will help your child to make sense of the things he or she may hear, see, or sense going on at home.
Avoiding or covering up the situation may lead your child to imagine the worst-case scenario or think that he or she is at fault.
Communicating with your child
When communicating with your school-age child about your cancer consider the following strategies:
- Use the proper name of the disease, such as “breast cancer” or “brain tumor.”
- Explain that cancer is not contagious, that you cannot “catch” cancer like a cold.
- Reassure your child that he or she did nothing to cause the cancer and that the cancer is not your child’s fault.
- Validate your child’s feelings. Let your child know that his or her feelings are OK.
- Invite your child to ask questions about your illness. It’s OK if you don’t know the answers.
- Prepare your child for expected changes from the cancer that will affect his or her life.
- Maintain your child’s daily routines as much as possible.
- Set aside time to focus on your child. Engage in activities that you enjoy together and remember that the good parts of life are still going on.
- It is expected that every child will respond differently to news about the cancer. Some may have many questions while others will prefer not to discuss it. Respect your child’s individual coping style. The important thing is to let your child know that you or another adult close to your child is available to listen to concerns and offer care and support when your child is ready.
Communicating with your teenager
Along with adapting strategies you might use in communicating with your younger child, consider these approaches:
- Explain that there is no wrong or right way to feel, and that fear, sadness, anger, and even having no feelings at all are all normal reactions.
- Let your teenager know that if it’s difficult to talk to you about feelings, there are others who can listen and help – including social workers, nurses, and your medical team.
- Encourage your teenager to take care of him- or herself and continue taking part in regular activities as much as possible.
When thinking about talking with your child about your cancer, it is normal to feel sad and scared. It is natural as a parent to want to protect your child from anything that might cause pain or worry. You may not be able to protect your child from the reality of your cancer. But you can offer your love and understanding and teach your child healthy ways of coping with life’s most difficult challenges.
To arrange a consultation, please ask a Memorial Sloan Kettering social worker or call the Talking with Children about Cancer consultation line at 212-639-7029. Individual and family counseling may also be helpful for parents with cancer.
If you are a parent who has lost a child to cancer and are looking for support in coping with the loss, please contact our Towards Tomorrow Bereavement Program at 212-639-6850 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.