Healthcare professionals discuss talking to children about cancer
Many people struggle to decide whether children should be told about the cancer diagnosis of a parent, grandparent or loved one. Our healthcare professionals provide some key reasons why children should be told:
- A child has a right to know about anything that affects the family, as cancer does.
- Children know something is wrong. If you protect them by saying nothing, they may have fears which are worse than the real situation.
- Not talking about cancer may suggest it is a subject too terrible to be discussed. There is a hopeful side. You would not wish your children to have an abnormal fear of cancer or illness.
- Children may find out the truth from someone else, or get misleading information from TV or other sources.
- Children can feel isolated if they are not told. They might feel they are not important enough to be included in a family matter.
- Children are good at noticing things but poor at understanding what they mean. For example: "Grandad died in hospital. Now Dad has to go into hospital. He is going to die too". Or, "I was cross with Mummy when she told me to pick up my toys. Then she was ill. Maybe I made her ill".
- Children who know the situation can be a comfort to you. You won’t need to feel secretive and isolated in your own family.
- Children have an amazing ability and capacity to deal with truth. Even very sad truths will relieve the anxiety of too much uncertainty. We cannot make them not sad, but if we share our feelings and give them information about what is happening, we can offer them support in their sadness.
- Coping with cancer in the family can be an opportunity for children to learn about the body, cancer, treatment and healing. They can learn about feelings and the strength of the human spirit in difficult times.
Who should tell the children?
- You should – if you think you can keep fairly good emotional control. It is all right to cry. Seeing you cry gives children permission to cry too, though you will not want to be unduly upsetting. You will know in your heart if you can be the one to tell them.
- Alternatively, a close relative could do it, or your doctor or other appropriate professionals.
When should I tell the children?
- After being diagnosed – explain what is wrong.
- When you are being treated – explain how you are treated, side effects if any, any changes in treatment, and whether things will be different at home or in how you feel.
- After you finish treatment – explain to the children that you will tell them about your health and about any changes.
- Be willing to talk whenever a child asks questions or seems concerned about your condition.
How should I tell the children?
- At first you may want to talk to children individually. They may need to know different things because of age or development level. Later, it might be comfortable for you to talk about some things together.
- You may want to practise what you will say and anticipate what questions the children will ask (see later in this booklet).
- You will want to talk in a language each child understands.