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How to Tell Your Kids About Your Cancer Diagnosis

Prioritize telling your children

Many people face understandable reluctance when deciding whether they should tell their children about their cancer diagnosis. Are they too young? Is it too much for them to handle? Is it too much for me to handle? These concerns are reasonable, but you must set them aside.

The truth is, if your children are old enough to communicate, they’re old enough to catch on when something is wrong. Cancer treatment comes with many changes: to your behavior, appearance, routine, mood, you name it. Even very young children will pick up on these changes, and if they don’t know the cause, they may suspect other and perhaps more sinister explanations.

Relieve your children of the stress of uncertainty and relieve yourself of the guilt in keeping them in the dark. It isn’t an easy conversation to have, but it is an important one.

When to tell your children

It may take some time before you are ready to tell anyone about your cancer diagnosis. That’s okay – take the time you need. But when you are ready to talk about it, your children should be some of the first to know.

Why? You don’t want your kids to find out about your cancer from anyone but yourself. Whether someone slips up and mentions it in their presence, or they overhear you talking about it, finding out any other way other than you telling them is a missed opportunity for you to disclose the challenging news in an appropriate setting where you can control the narrative with facts, optimism, and hope.

When you do tell them, find a time where your schedules are clear. This is not the kind of news you want to squeeze into the couple of hours between school and soccer practice. You may find evenings to be ideal given they tend to be more relaxed in the household with less on everyone’s plate and the promise of the night to sleep on and process the news.

Where to tell your children

Privacy is your friend when delivering difficult news. When telling your children about your cancer diagnosis, do so in an environment that is quiet, free of distraction, and familiar.

Maybe the car is where you and your children have your most free conversations. Maybe the kitchen table, maybe their bedroom, maybe the couch. As a parent you will know where your children feel safe to express themselves freely.

All that said, if there is a sacred place you share with your children, a place that is special to you, holds many great memories, or belongs to a beloved tradition, do not taint it with this unfortunate conversation. You don’t want to attach a negative association to a place that means a lot to you and your children.

With whom to tell your children

Depending on the size of your immediate family and the age of your children, this conversation may look like a single collective group conversation or a few more intimate one-on-ones.

If you are married or in a relationship, decide ahead of time whether you think your child would respond better with both parents present or just the affected parent. Consider your emotional state, and the emotional state of your partner. Having them there when you tell your children may be a tremendous comfort to both you and your child. On the other hand, if it’s likely that your partner will become terribly upset at the conversation, you may decide to do it without them so as not to further stress your child.

With multiple children, consider their ages. If they are similar in age, telling them all together may be ideal, as it will lessen the amount of times you need to have the conversation. Similarly, your children may be a comfort to each other and one child may ask a question the other didn’t think to ask. Family discussions with everyone present create a sense of unity and keep everyone on the same page.

If your children are very different ages, say, 16 and 5, it may be best to have separate conversations. You are likely to find it difficult to address both levels of comprehension at the same time. Furthermore, older children who are more familiar with the dangers of cancer may initially become very upset at the news. Younger children may pick up on that energy and take the news worse than they otherwise would.

Expect the unexpected

You may find that your children react differently than you might anticipate. If you have more than one child, there may be drastically different reactions among them. One might immediately become upset and cry, while another becomes angry and detached. Particularly young children may seem fairly oblivious and be ready to move on more quickly than you are!

Whatever the reaction, be patient with your children and the time it may take them to process this news. Try not to take too personally that their reaction may not seem appropriate for the magnitude of the situation.

If your child seems to be having a particularly hard time with the news, comfort them, but do not lie about the severity of your disease. If your child’s mood or behavior take a prolonged turn for the worse, seek advice from a professional on how you might get them the help they need – you may want to start with your child’s pediatrician.

Be honest

As previously mentioned, it is important to be honest with your children about the severity of your diagnosis. Adjust the level of detail you give depending on your child’s age. Very young children don’t need to know your exact treatment plan or understand the difference between Stage2 and Stage 4, but they should know that you are sick, you have something in your body that shouldn’t be there, and you are working with a doctor to help make it go away.

Make sure to emphasize to younger children that your disease is not contagious and that in no way did they cause or contribute to your cancer. If helpful, you can use props or dolls to illustrate to young children where your cancer is.

Answer any questions they have honestly. If they don’t ask questions initially, let them know they can come to you with questions any time. 

Regardless of age, make sure to inform your children that there are going to be some changes once you start treatment. Depending on the severity of your disease and the type of treatment you undergo, these changes could be mild (things like diet and exercise adjustments, frequent doctor’s appointments, and fatigue) or much more severe (drastic physical changes, extended time in the hospital for surgery, and even changing financial priorities – cancer is an expensive disease). Priming children for changes early on will benefit the whole family as you move toward treatment.

Answering the dreaded question “Are you going to die?”

Are you going to die? This is one of those seemingly impossible questions that everyone affected by cancer dreads. Even when not directly asked, it can linger in the air. However difficult, the question should be addressed if asked.

Honesty in this matter is so important, and you may be surprised with how hopeful honesty can be. Consider this as a basic outline for how to answer this question: Everyone is going to die. Because of my disease I may be at risk of dying sooner than I otherwise would, but I am getting help from doctors to lower that risk. Adjust the vernacular as needed based on your child’s age and add information based on your unique situation. For instance, if your cancer is at an early stage or your doctor has expressed optimism about your future, share that with your children to help alleviate fear.

You are opening up a discussion that is unlikely to close

You can look at talking to your children about your cancer diagnosis less as a singular conversation and more as a communication path you will take together. The initial conversation is important, but so is the continued dialogue you have with your children as you move through the stages of treatment and remission. Even when the last trace of cancer is gone from your body, there will still be follow-up appointments, occasional tinges of fear, and news to share. Establishing open lines of communication will make your cancer less scary over time to not only your children, but to you as well.

About Aaron Gomez

Aaron Gomez
Aaron Gomez is a Writer and Video Producer based in Los Angeles who specializes in taking complex ideas and making them accessible to the public. With a great passion for purpose-driven content Aaron works to tell human stories that inform an inspire.