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Talking with Children About Cancer

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It’s natural for families facing a new cancer diagnosis to be concerned about how they will deal with this crisis in their lives. For families with young children and/or teens, these worries may be even greater, as they wonder how their kids will cope with the changes and uncertainty cancer brings to their lives.

A child's age is a key factor in deciding what and how much you should tell them about the cancer. The guiding principle should be to tell the truth in such a way that the child is able to understand, and try to prepare him or her for the changes that will happen in the family. Kids thrive on routine – it helps them feel safe. When life becomes unpredictable, they’ll need help adjusting.

Young children up to 8 years old won’t need a a lot of detailed information. Older kids and teens will need – and deserve – to know more. All children need the following basics: the name of the cancer, such as "breast cancer," "lymphoma," etc., the part of the body where the cancer is, how it will be treated, how it might change the way the patient looks and feels, and how their own lives will be affected.

Some children may become very emotional when learning about a new diagnosis, while others may act as if nothing is wrong. The goal is to give the child a balanced point of view. The child should realize that cancer is a serious, but not a hopeless, illness. It will be important for parents to choose a time when they’re feeling fairly calm to talk to their children. Parents can acknowledge that this is an upsetting time, that cancer is a scary disease, and that it's OK to have strong feelings about it. But none of that means that your family won't be able to find ways to cope with it.

There are other worries kids have about cancer, along with those about the illness itself. The most common of these is that something they did or didn't do may have caused the cancer. When a parent gets sick, children often feel guilty and think they’re to blame for the cancer. Children usually won't express this, so anticipating this reaction – and talking about it – can help prevent the child from feeling guilty for no reason.

Other things children worry about are that cancer might be contagious, that everyone dies from it, and that they or the other parent will get it, too. It's a good idea to correct these thoughts before the child starts worrying about them. Kids can become confused about how people get sick, and a common concern is that cancer can be passed from one person to another, like "catching" a cold. Parents should explain that cancer is a different kind of illness – children don't have to worry that someone passed it on to mom or dad or that they will get it. It’s OK to hug and kiss and be close to each other.

Parents may also want to tell their older children how advances have been made and that the outlook for many cancers is much more hopeful. All kids should be given truthful information, when needed, to cope with what’s happening to them and their family. A good way to help children is to say, "I don't want you to worry about the future at this point – let's focus on what's going on right now. If anything changes, I promise I will tell you. I will always try to tell you the truth. I want you to ask me any questions, no matter what, and I will do my best to answer them."

Our Mom Has Cancer is a children's book that has been created for children ages 5-12, who have a parent with cancer. Abigail and Adrienne Ackermann wrote this book to share their personal experiences during their mom’s illness with other children.

Nana, What’s Cancer? offers children ages 8 to 12 a loving conversation between a grandmother and a granddaughter, tackling tough medical and emotional questions about cancer in a kid-friendly but honest way.

Children may struggle with the uncertainty and inevitable change that occurs when a chronic illness affects someone they know, whether it's a family member, a friend, or a beloved teacher. Offer them support, encouragement, and a chance to express their feelings with Because…Someone I Love Has Cancer. The creative activities in this inspired publication are designed to address the basic goals of therapeutic support for children between the ages of 6 to 12 who have a loved one with cancer. It features exercises that progressively teach coping skills and includes a 16-page removable guide for caregivers.

These are just a few of the books published by the American Cancer Society. You can learn more about all of the Society’s books, costs, and how to order them by calling 1-800-227-2345 or at www.cancer.org/bookstore.


Para solicitar información en español, llame al 1-800-227-2345. Un especialista en información sobre el cáncer le asistirá en español.

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