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Pictured is a mother talking to her daughter about cancer

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How to tell your kids you have cancer

A steady routine helps kids feel and do their best. But, when you’re diagnosed with cancer, everything changes. Are you wondering how cancer treatment will impact your ability to be there for your kids and others counting on you? Keep reading to learn how you can share your cancer diagnosis, help your kids understand cancer and explain how it could affect their lives during your treatment.

Sharing your cancer diagnosis

As licensed therapists and oncology social workers, we meet with parents to discuss their fears and concerns about cancer, and share how best to communicate with and support their children. If you are a parent, sharing your cancer diagnosis could be one of the most difficult conversations you’ll have. You may have also considered not telling your kids or family. Ultimately, it’s your choice to share when and how to share your cancer diagnosis. However, you may be reassured to learn that kids who know about an illness often cope better than children who don’t. While you don’t need to follow a script, you can prepare for the conversation to help them understand your diagnosis.  

The Allina Health Cancer Institute Simple Talk Program helps parents prepare for the conversation with resources, guidance and personalized support from a specially trained oncology social worker who can address your specific family needs. Participants also receive a copy of the Simple Talk for Tough Times book, a helpful how-to guide for talking with children about cancer.

Prepare for the talk

Sharing your diagnosis can help your kids better understand cancer and what they can expect during your cancer treatment.  Some things to consider before the conversation:

  • The ages and developmental stages of your children.
  • Prior experience with cancer and illness.
  • Any emotional or learning barriers. 

What should you say?

When you talk to your children, we advise you to:

  • Be honest about your situation.
  • Use the word “cancer” when sharing your diagnosis. It’s important for kids to know that cancer is different than a stomachache, the flu and other common illnesses.
  •  Explain your treatment and what to expect.
  • Invite their questions and simplify your answers as much as possible using appropriate terms and examples kids will understand. 
  • Give small amounts of information at a time. Remind kids you’ll have regular conversations with them during your treatment.

Remember that it’s okay if you can’t answer all of their questions. Here are some common questions, along with our advice on how you can answer them:

What is cancer?

Cancer is a complicated illness that affects the cells in our body. Many types of cancer affect different parts of the body and require treatment that might include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. It’s important for kids to know we often don’t know what causes cancer, but you can communicate these key points:

  • It’s not their fault. Kids often blame themselves. Explain that cancer can happen to anyone, and there’s nothing your kids could have done to prevent your cancer diagnosis. When you explain cancer, consider offering reassurance to ease their minds. For example, you can say with confidence that cancer treatments have consistently improved over time.
  • Cancer isn’t contagious. The fear that cancer might spread to others is understandable, especially during an ongoing pandemic that has changed our lives. You can reassure your kids and ease their minds by explaining that cancer doesn’t spread from person to person.

Will you look different?

Cancer and cancer treatment can change your appearance and activity level. During chemotherapy cancer treatment, you may experience side effects, such as fatigue, hair loss and nausea. Tell your kids about the potential side effects and cancer symptoms before you start treatment to ease their concerns and set expectations.

How can they help?

Some kids may ask how they can help during cancer treatment. Give them an opportunity to share how they’d like to help and start with things you know they can manage. Remind kids they can continue participating in the activities they enjoy, even if they have times of feeling scared or sad.

Supporting kids during your cancer treatment

Everyone experiences different emotions after learning a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. Children often express anger, sadness, confusion, fear and other difficult feelings. Other kids may misbehave, act out for attention or lose their appetite as they cope with your cancer diagnosis. Your kids may benefit from professional mental health care while navigating difficult emotions.

Explore cancer resources

Visit Allina Health Cancer Institute’s free online cancer resources to easily find answers to common questions and learn what to expect during your cancer treatment. Your cancer care team can also answer any questions you or your kids may have from your diagnosis through treatment. 

Cancer treatment options

Cancer is complicated, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Allina Health Cancer Institute can navigate your care close to home, giving you more time for what matters most. You’ll get specialized cancer care from a team of experts who know what's important to you. Find an Allina Health Cancer Institute location near you.

 

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