Telling your child they have cancer

Parents tell us that one of their biggest worries is what to say to their child about their cancer and its treatment. Children have different levels of understanding, and it can be hard to know what information they need and which words to use.

Knowing what to say to children

If you aren’t sure how to begin, take a look at our storybooks for children. They will give you an idea of how to explain things simply and clearly – and in a way that makes it more ‘normal’.

While it’s not possible to talk to babies and toddlers about what’s happening, your calming, reassuring presence is vital. Play specialists are also very skilled at using play to help young children understand what is happening.

  • Keep it simple and do it gradually – you may need to repeat all or part of what you say several times
  • Be as honest as you can
  • A good starting point can be to ask your child what they think is happening
  • Ask if there is anything they are worried about
  • Ask if there is anything they have not been able to ask but would like to
  • Don’t feel you have to have all the answers
  • It’s fine if they don’t want to talk. Just reassure them that you are happy to talk about it and answer any questions when they are ready
  • Remember to revisit the conversations as your child grows. They may forget some things they were told when they were younger.

We read the Lucy has a tumour book and got to the bit where it says chemotherapy can make your hair fall out. It suddenly clicked… and she said, 'Mummy, is that going to happen to me?'"

Remember, support is always available. You can speak to your Young Lives vs Cancer Social Worker if you need more help and guidance.

Talking to your teen

If your child is a teenager or young adult, they will need you to be there to support them and also listen to them. You’re bound to want to protect your child but remember that they are individuals with their own needs and wishes. Try to have honest conversations with them and respect if they want to make decisions for themselves.

Also bear in mind that they might be feeling guilty about what’s happening – especially if you’re having to take a break from work, drive them to treatment or support them financially. Try to reassure them that it isn’t their fault and you’re here for them.

Find information for your teenager

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