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URMC / Patients & Families / Health Matters / January 2017 / Cancer: How Do I Tell My Kids?

Cancer: How Do I Tell My Kids?

One of the hardest parts of a cancer diagnosis can be breaking the news to children. Each family finds its own way, but help is there for those who need it. Social Worker Judy Zeeman-Golden shares advice on talking to kids about cancer.father having serious discussion with young daughter

  • Decide what you want to say. There’s no right or wrong way to communicate, but determining what or how much you want to tell your child is an important first step. No matter how young or old they are, children sense when something is wrong. If they don't know what it is, they may imagine something even scarier than what you have to tell them. And you don’t have to discuss everything all at once. Several conversations over time usually work better in talking with kids.
  • Take time to prepare yourself. Think about what you want to say and the words that will be most effective in conveying that. Consider talking it over ahead of time with your partner, someone from your health care team or faith community, a friend, therapist, or social worker. Writing down the most important points can be helpful so you can pay attention to your kids and their reactions. Children need to know that, while parts of your life might change, you’ll do everything you can to keep their lives as on-track as possible. For example, while you might not be able to pick them up from school or soccer, you will make sure they know who will be picking them up.
  • Don’t feel like you have to follow a script. While writing down points can be helpful, try to talk as naturally as possible and invite questions early on. You could encourage them to tell you what they already know, what they would like to know, and how they think your illness will affect them and the family. Remind them that it's okay to ask you questions, and that you'll do your best to answer. This will show them it’s possible to talk together about hard issues. If your prognosis is good, let them know. It’s important to instill hope. Many children hear the word “cancer” and assume the worst.
  • Pick your time carefully. Ideally, plan your conversation so that you can spend as much time as needed to answer your kids' questions and to comfort them if they are upset. Try to avoid having this discussion when you are tired, pressed for time, or feeling especially ill or discouraged. Likewise, start this conversation when your children are well rested and free of other commitments. Don't be surprised or upset if many of these conversations are short. If your children show signs that they have had enough, bring your conversation to a close and return to it later.
  • Try to avoid discussing it when you’re very upset. You may need a chance to talk further about your own concerns first as a way to feel more ready to share with them. This doesn't mean you have to be unemotional when you talk with your children about your illness. In fact, it may be beneficial for them to see you are willing to share your emotions. The key is to stay focused on their concerns and questions as you talk.
  • Decide who you want to be present. Do you and your partner both want to be there? If that's not practical, can you communicate your partner's support and point of view? Is there another adult you want to include? Who would you like to begin and lead the discussion? Decide if you want to talk to your children individually or when they are all together, knowing that siblings often share with each other. Depending on their ages and what is developmentally appropriate, it may make sense to have discussions with them one-on-one.
  • Seek help when you need it. There are plenty of useful resources on the internet and your oncology team can be helpful, too. If you're getting care at Wilmot Cancer Institute, your social worker can help you figure out how best to talk about your diagnosis with your children. 


Judith Zeeman Golden


Judy Zeeman-Golden, LCSW, is a social worker at Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Pluta Cancer Center. She helps many patients who are diagnosed with cancer talk to their children about the disease and has written a book on the topic. It’s available for patients to read at the Pluta Cancer Center as well as in the Wilmot Cancer Center Patient and Family Resource Center.


Lori Barrette | 1/6/2017

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