Healthy Living

Talking with Kids About Cancer

Oct. 7, 2013
In the U.S., one adult of every four who is diagnosed with cancer has a child under the age of 18, according to estimates from the National Cancer Institute. While talking about a cancer diagnosis can be tough, striking a balance between open communication and easing a child’s worries and fears can be especially challenging.
Wilmot Cancer Center social worker Mike Ellis offers insight and advice on sharing the news of a cancer diagnosis with kids.
Health Matters: There are many stressors when a person finds out they have cancer, and perhaps one of the most stressful situations is figuring out how to share the news of a diagnosis with your family—particularly children. What is your advice on what and when to tell your children?father talking to son
Ellis: It is important to keep children in the loop throughout diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, and to use terms you hear at visits with your doctor so that children are not misinformed.
  • Honesty is vital. Explain your diagnosis to your children, and let them know the doctors are doing their best to take care of you.
  • Be specific. Tell them what type of cancer you have, and what type of treatment you are getting, using terms that your providers use, geared toward the age of the child.  
  • Reinforce your treatment plan. Communicate how often you will be treated and how this treatment will help. Again, be sure to use language used in the doctor’s office.
  • Give next steps. Confirm that you will continue to update them as you learn more and that they will be involved every step of the way. 
Health Matters: Fear is a common reaction to learning of a cancer diagnosis, and children may have many questions. Therapists say one of the first questions pre-teens ask is, “Are you going to die?”  How do you answer these difficult questions?
Ellis: Children react to the news of a cancer diagnosis in many ways. While you cannot promise or guarantee a specific outcome, you can promise that you are in the care of an excellent team and that you are taking very strong medications for the disease. Let them know that you will continue to keep them involved in your care.
Health Matters: There are many side effects of cancer treatments, such as hair loss, nausea, and fatigue. Sometimes patients have to be hospitalized for their care. What can parents do to help children deal with these changes?
Ellis: Tell children about the potential side effects of treatment so that they know what to expect, and encourage them to get involved. If a parent has a prolonged hospital stay, allow the children to help decorate the hospital room. Set up routine “virtual visits” through Skype or Facetime. If you experience hair loss, consider having a hat or a head-shaving party to help children confront their fears of mommy or daddy being bald. Children can help with chores around the house or cooking dinner. But, not all children will want to be involved—and that’s okay too. Allow them time to process information and ask questions at their own pace.
Health Matters: Where can families find resources to help them through this process?
Ellis:  There are many resources to help families as they are dealing with a cancer diagnosis. The Wilmot Cancer Center offers social work services, support groups and a health encyclopedia, among other programs and tools to help families cope. Our community also offers many resources, such as Kids Adjusting Through Support programs at Camp Good Days, support programs at Gilda’s Club, or books recommended by the American Cancer Society.  
Talking to your children about a cancer diagnosis is not easy, but the good news is that children are very resilient. Open communication helps to ease their fears and concerns, and can be very helpful throughout this difficult time of transition. 
Michael Ellis
Mike Ellis, LMSW, has been part of the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center on the blood and marrow transplant unit since 1997. He has a bachelor's in Social Work from Nazareth College, and a master's in Social Administration from Mandel School of Applied Social Science/Case Western Reserve University.