Telling Your Children You Have Cancer

A cancer diagnosis is shocking and upsetting, leaving you anxious, confused, and dazed. Then it hits you: how will you tell your children you have cancer? 

Breaking the news to your children that you have cancer can be one of the most challenging conversations to have with your children. Worrying about how they’ll react and cope with the news is natural. They may feel scared, confused, and worried about your health and their future. 

There’s no right or wrong way to let your children know about your cancer diagnosis (although keeping it a secret is not recommended). Everyone reacts differently to the news of a cancer diagnosis. But you know your children better than anyone, including the best way to share the news. Here are some tips to help you talk to your children about your diagnosis. 

Prepare Yourself First

Before talking to your children about your diagnosis, take some time to process your emotions and thoughts to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. Being as calm and collected as possible is crucial to help reassure your children. Consider what information you want to share and how you will phrase it. 

Plan the Conversation

You don’t need a polished, prepared speech, but it will help to have a guideline in mind for what you want to say and answers to questions they are likely to ask. For example, they may want to know what cancer is in a general sense and how it will affect their everyday life.

Choose a Comfortable and Private Setting

Find a quiet and safe space where your children feel comfortable and free to express their emotions. Make sure there won’t be any interruptions or distractions and you’ll have enough time to talk.

Consider a Gradual Roll-Out of the Information

Trying to share the information all at once can make a stressful and challenging time much harder. Sharing the information with children in multiple, brief conversations can make it easier to digest. 

Offer Age-Appropriate Information 

Young children — toddlers and preschoolers — will probably be satisfied with bite-sized explanations you can update as treatment progresses, but it’s a good idea to repeat them often. Share as much information as you can openly and honestly. Offering consistent, age-appropriate simple facts can help children cope. Thankfully, there are plenty of kid-friendly books that can help guide you. Older kids will ask tougher questions that you should answer with cautious honesty.

Lessen Fears With Transparency 

It’s a good strategy to let children know that there may be changes to their routines, explaining who will care for them while mom or dad is unwell, or being open about being sad or angry. While you don’t want to overwhelm or panic them, it’s okay to let them know what you’re feeling. For example, you can say, “I’m feeling sad. I’m waiting to hear from the doctor.”

Lead with Optimism

Even though you may feel beleaguered and uncertain, try to be positive for your kids as much as possible. For example, let them know that you’re getting excellent care. Your goal is to reassure them without offering guarantees for the future.

Eliminate Possible Misconceptions

Young children can have misconceptions about your disease. For instance, they may think that they did something that caused you to get sick. Make sure they know that no one is to blame for your cancer. They may also think your cancer is contagious, like a cold, and worry that they can catch it if they get too close to you. Take time to explain as much as you can about you cancer. 

Prepare Them for Possible Visible Changes in Your Appearance

The effects of cancer can shake children. Let them know that cancer treatment is strong so it can work hard to make you better and that it may cause you to look and feel different. Explain that you may be weak, tired, or sick sometimes, but you will still be their parent.

Be Prepared for Questions

Your kids will likely have questions, including some you may not have considered. Recognize that their questions will probably be ongoing and may be uttered at any time. Give them the opportunity to ask anything they have on their mind. 

Some of the questions may be difficult to answer. Be prepared for your children to ask whether you will die. Explain that you have great doctors taking care of you. Don’t be afraid of being emotional — it may help children process feelings.

Answering honestly and appropriately can help put them at ease and remove some of the uncertainty and fear of what it means to have a parent living with cancer.

Finally, make sure to remind your children that they are now and always will be loved. Cancer won’t change that.

Seek Professional Help

If you or your children need additional support, consider contacting a social worker, counselor, or therapist who works with families affected by cancer. They can help you and your children navigate the emotional and practical challenges of a cancer diagnosis.

Help Us Empower Children 

Talking to your children about cancer is never easy, but it’s essential. With honesty, support, and reassurance, you can help your child understand and cope with your diagnosis while strengthening your bond as a family.

Kesem provides life-changing experiences for children facing a parent’s cancer. We offer year-round services, our Camp Kesem summer camp program, and family resources that help children cope, become resilient, and create new friendships. 

Your generosity allows us to offer Camp Kesem and all other year-round services free of charge, so any child dealing with a parent’s cancer can begin to heal, regardless of their economic situation. 

There are so many ways to give. Donations help Kesem change lives! You can help by participating in fundraising; donating through planned giving, donor-advised funds, or stock donations; attending or sponsoring an event; or shopping at our store. With your support, we can ensure that more children impacted by a parent’s cancer can feel joy, hope, and the magic that is Kesem.

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