How to talk to children about a cancer diagnosis

Talking to children about a cancer diagnosis is difficult. This information is designed to support parents and carers when having the first conversation with children about a cancer diagnosis.

It’s recommended to tailor the discussion to each child’s age, providing them with enough information to understand what is happening, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.

Open communication is key, allowing children to express their feelings and ask questions.

It’s also beneficial to prepare for a range of reactions and to provide reassurance and support throughout the process.

For more detailed guidance and support, resources such as the Cancer Council’s booklet on talking to kids about cancer are helpful.

Additionally, seeking professional help from a psychologist or counsellor who specialises in cancer care can provide further assistance in having this challenging conversation.

Remember, you’re not alone and there are resources and people ready to support you and your family through this time.

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How to prepare:

Take the time to plan what you’ll say.

Role-playing the conversation can be helpful. You can try this with your partner, friend, relative, counsellor or the support of one of our cancer care co-ordinators.

Some people also find it helpful to practise what they will say in front of the mirror.

It can be helpful to say the words out loud before talking to your children, as this may help to reduce some of the anxiety associated with the conversation and settle your nerves before you speak to them.

Before talking to your children, think about how the conversation might end. You could organise an activity for after the discussion to help settle your children.

It’s important to remember that you are doing the best that you can during a difficult time, so don’t be hard on yourself if the words don’t come out the way you planned.

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Breast Cancer Treatment Australia

When should I tell my children:

It’s natural to protect children from the pain of knowing that someone they care about is ill.

In the early days of a cancer diagnosis, things can be more unsettled, so it may be best not to delay telling children for too long.

It’s recommended to share the news before starting treatment, so your children are not left feeling confused by the changes they observe.

The Cancer Council’s guide to talking to kids about cancer suggests it’s also a good idea to tell children if:

  • You think they may have overheard a conversation
  • They are scared by adults crying
  • They are shocked or confused by physical or emotional changes in the person who has cancer, especially if the person has symptoms such as frequent vomiting, weight loss, hair loss or is admitted to hospital for immediate treatment
  • You notice changes in their behaviour.

Remember, you don’t have to tell your children everything straight away. You can tell them that you don’t know everything yet and reassure them that you will tell them more when you have that information.

What do children need to know:

Children’s understanding of cancer and their reactions will vary depending on their age and family experiences.

It’s important to use words that your children will understand. What you say will depend on how old your child is. Young children only need a simple explanation. You might need to repeat the information to them.

You can tell older children a bit more. You can be led by your child and the amount they want to know.

You can tell them the name of the cancer and where it is in your body. You can explain a little bit about what the treatment plan is, and how this will affect you.

You can find out what they know or ask them what they want to know. Try and explain any misunderstandings.

Ask them if they have any questions. Don’t assume that they have the same concerns as you. Try and answer these but you can be honest and tell them you don’t know some answers.

You can explain to your children how your diagnosis might affect their daily life and routines.

It can help to ask your doctor, nurse or counsellor for advice on what your children need to know about your cancer diagnosis.

Involving others

It can be helpful to involve people who have regular contact with your children, to ensure your children are receiving the same messaging about your diagnosis.

The Cancer Council’s guide to talking to kids about cancer suggests:

  • Telling key adults – Share the diagnosis with other people who talk with your children such as grandparents, friends, teachers and babysitters) and tell them what you plan to say to your children so that you all communicate the same message.
  • Talking to other people who have cancer – Often the best support and ideas come from people who’ve already been there.
  • Asking a professional – It may also be helpful to get some tips from a professional, such as an oncology nurse, psychologist or other health professionals at the hospital.

The above information does not replace professional advice. Please remember there is professional help available from psychologists or counsellors who specialise in cancer care. To find out more, please contact Cancer Council Australia on 13 11 20.

The content found on the Icon Cancer Centre website is intended solely for informational purposes and should not be considered as medical advice. It is not a substitute for consulting with a qualified medical professional. Our website is designed to provide information and support to the general public. Please be mindful that we do not dispense medical advice, and for personalised medical guidance, we strongly advise you to consult with a qualified medical professional or doctor.

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