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Finding out your child has cancer can be overwhelming. You may not know what to do or how you will get through this. Remember that you are not alone. Your health care team will be there to help you.
You may want to tell your child about their diagnosis yourself. Or you may want help with difficult conversations. Be sure to ask for help from your care team. They have experience in this area and can offer suggestions.
When talking your child about cancer, keep these 3 things in mind:
Children with cancer need to know they are loved, supported, and surrounded by people who care about them.
Honesty and openness with your child will build trust and strengthen your relationship. It might be tempting to avoid telling your child that they have cancer. It is natural to want to protect children from anything difficult.
But children are observant. Even if it looks like they are not paying attention, they watch their parents, care team members, and other family members or adults to figure out what is going on. It is likely that during some point your child will hear the word cancer from staff, another hospital peer, or even family and friends. Your child will likely hear the word even if you warn people not to use it.
Many parents report that explaining cancer instead of trying to prevent people from talking about it takes less energy. And it can remove the strain of always trying to maintain defense.
Practice what you are going to say. This is a difficult conversation. Ask for advice from your child's care team or another parent who has been in a similar position.
The way you share information is also important.
Many parents receive their child’s diagnosis from the doctor at the same time that their child learns of it. But if you want to be the one to tell your child, the care team can help you decide what to say and how to answer your child’s questions.
Tell children as early as possible. It will help build trust.
When you first talk with your child, consider asking another person to be with you. This person might be another family member or trusted friend who can provide support. It could also be a doctor, nurse, child life specialist, or social worker who can help describe cancer in more detail.
Most children and teens have the same basic questions:
Children need information to manage treatments or procedures, cope with feelings, and have some control over their situation. Most of all, they need to know they are loved, supported, and surrounded by people who care about them.
Trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. You know the best way to tell them. Here are some helpful tips.
Each child is different. Their reactions and how they deal with a cancer diagnosis will vary depending on their age, level of development, and personality.
Children will follow your lead. Try to be calm and reassuring. Find ways to tell and show your children, (including siblings) that you will always be there for them.
There are some common fears that many children have when they learn about cancer. Your child may be scared to talk about these concerns. You may want to bring them up yourself. Use sentence starters such as: Some children think..., Have you heard... ?
As you encourage your child to share their feelings and questions, be open and honest about your own feelings and questions.
You can be your child's most important source of information and support.
Many staff members will be involved in helping your child understand their disease and treatments. A certified child life specialist will probably be part of your care team. They will work closely with your family. They can help your child and their siblings understand about treatment and adjust to treatment and visits to the hospital.
Reviewed: February 2023