Explaining cancer to your child

One of the hardest parts of caring for a child with cancer is knowing what to say and how much information to give them. You can ask your doctors or nurses for guidance on how to talk to your child.

Everyone is unique in their reactions to receiving a cancer diagnosis and there is no right or wrong way for your child to respond. Children might show no change in emotion, or they might become quieter than usual, or feel confused, angry or scared. 

What and how you tell your child will depend on their age, maturity and your approach with them.

Younger children

Younger children may be frightened about being separated from their parents. It is important to reassure them that any separation is only temporary.  

Older children 

Older children may be more frightened of pain. It can help to explain that there is medication available to help control any pain they have

Doctors and nurses will be happy to explain this further and reassure your child. 

Blocking communication and honesty

Parents are often concerned with protecting their child from the reality of their disease that it may block communication.

Often children or teenagers can sense that their parents are unwilling or unable to talk with them.  

Children, as young as three or four years old, can pick up pieces of information from: 

  • overhearing discussions 
  • being sensitive to parental concerns and upset 
  • wondering about extra restrictions and attention, treatment and medicines 
  • other children on the ward or their peers at school having been told information and passing it on to them 
  • other direct ways such as a child asking questions of the staff when the parent is not present. 

It is important your child knows they can talk to you about their fears and can ask you any questions. 

If your child has not talked about their illness

If your child has not talked about their illness  including fear of dying, this does not necessarily mean that they have not thought about it.  

You may need to gently raise the topic and guide the conversation. Gentle reminders such as: 

  • “Do you have any more questions?”  
  • “Is there anything you want to ask?” 
  • “You must be pretty frightened about this” 
Last updated Wednesday 26th June 2024