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Explaining a Cancer Diagnosis to a Child


September 29, 2020

How much should you tell children when someone they know receives a cancer diagnosis?

Parents want to shield their children from anything that is scary or worrisome, so it is natural to want to keep details from children regarding a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. However, withholding information about a family member’s health can be damaging.

“When information is withheld or kept secret, a child still knows something is wrong,” says DeAnn Gallatin, MS, an oncology social worker at Kettering Health Network. “Secrecy can prompt a child to believe something is their fault, and a lack of information can result in the child developing anxiety.”

Child development and child psychology experts agree—talking to children about a loved one’s cancer is the healthiest choice.

Tips for a tough discussion

How much information to provide about cancer depends on the child’s level of interest and who in their life has received a diagnosis.

“I recommend using the child’s level of interest and their questions as a guide for how much information to provide and then to keep the door to communication open,” says DeAnn. “If a parent or grandparent has received a cancer diagnosis, the child will likely see changes in their day-to-day routine and will have more questions. If it is a neighbor, teacher or coach, the child’s routine is less likely to be disrupted, but it is still important to talk about cancer and the changes the child might see in this person.”

Younger children likely won’t ask detailed questions, while older children might want to know specifics, like the location of the cancer and what treatments their loved one is going through. Some talking points and coping strategies remain the same, no matter the child’s age:

• Let them know their loved one has cancer and that the doctors are helping.

• Try to keep the child’s routine as consistent as possible.

• Identify a regular caregiver who can devote time each day to the child.

• Let the child tour the medical facility and meet providers.

Knowledge is power

Discussing the outward effects of cancer and treatment is also important. Children need to understand that the disease and treatment can be hard on the body.

Explain that nausea, vomiting, hair loss and fatigue can all occur to someone going through cancer treatment, and emphasize that the doctors will help by giving the loved one medicine for some of these side effects. Telling a child ahead of time will ease their fears, should the loved one have any of these symptoms.

“Knowledge gives children power, and that power can be used to help their loved one as they go through the cancer journey,” says DeAnn. “It can also be used to help children deal with their own emotions.”