Finding out you or your loved one has cancer is never easy. Having to tell others about the cancer is often emotionally charged, filled with questions and an all-around difficult experience. When you or a loved one has cancer it can be difficult to wrap your mind around but when it comes to explaining it to children, it poses a unique set of challenges. Telling a child about a family member or loved one’s cancer diagnosis will look different depending on the age of the child but a lot of how the child reacts and deals with the news will be dependent on how you, the adult, explain it to them. It is for this reason that the difficult news should not be sprung on a child. Instead, the way it is explained and the words chosen should be carefully weighed in advance. By doing this, you can help your child understand what is happening and emotionally equip them with the tools and support they need to process the information in their own way.
How you tell anyone about a cancer diagnosis, including a child, will depend on the individual you are telling. You will choose your words differently depending on personality type, maturity, age, relationship and more. For younger children under the age of 8 or so, it will be less about specific details and more about information that will impact their lives. They may want to know specific things like what kind of cancer (or what the name of the cancer is), where the cancer is in the body, how they are treating it. For young children these things are best explained in very simple terms that they can understand like there is something wrong in grandma’s tummy, or dad’s skin is sick and needs a doctor to treat it. You can explain that sometimes cancer grows or moves around in the body. Many children will wonder if it is contagious, like a cold so this will provide an opportunity for you to explain that only the family member has it and it will not spread. Many kids who are familiar with cancer will want to know if the family member or loved one will die. This is a particularly difficult question because there are no guarantees or certainty when it comes to cancer. Depending on what you know about the diagnosis and prognosis you can gauge your answers carefully. But, if there is optimism for a cure you can explain that sometimes people do die but most of the time doctors are able to fix what is wrong and make the loved one better. For older children who have a better grasp of what is happening, it is best to be somewhat straightforward with information. All children, regardless of age, want to know that it is ok to be angry, scared, upset or any other emotion they may experience. Children tend to take cues from parents so the way in which you discuss the cancer will largely influence their reaction to what is happening. Remember that it is ok to say, “I don’t know.” Sometimes, there are simply no answers and it is better to explain that than to make up something that may end up not being true.
When talking with children it is best to prepare responses in advance and think through the potential conversation so that you can go into the conversation knowing how you want the conversation to go. But, it is also best to be flexible and allow the child to guide the conversation. Some children will have very few questions or not want to talk much about it. Do not force it or make them feel bad for their response. Some children will have endless questions and it is best to try to answer their questions as much as possible. Allow them to feel as included as they want so that they feel empowered and safe during what is a scary time for children. With realistic but hopeful responses, as well as open lines of communication, your child will be as prepared as possible to deal with a loved one or family member’s cancer diagnosis.