Talking with Children About a Cancer Diagnosis on ModernMom

Today, I am super honored to be a contributor to ModernMom discussing how to talk with children about a cancer diagnosis. You know that talking with children is at the tippy top of my priority list and I’m grateful to share this information to a wonderful new audience. Thank you to ModernMom for this opportunity!

Here is the post:


In October 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

As a healthy, happy, vegan-eating, marathon running mother with no family history, my diagnosis rocked my world. As a nurse and social worker, I now found myself on the other side of the bed.

As much as I wish that I could have shielded my husband and children from the pain of this experience, the reality is that cancer does not happen in isolation. Cancer happens within the ecosystem of family, friends and community.

When it came to telling our daughter (who at the time was 4 ¾) about my diagnosis, I was quite surprised by how anxious I was about telling her, especially considering the fact that as an adult and pediatric hospice nurse and social worker, I had delivered far worse bad news as a hospice nurse.

Because discussing cancer with your child is such an emotionally charged situation, my personal experience has enabled me to be empathetic with parents who try to hide the truth from children.

All too often, parents avoid discussing a cancer diagnosis with children because they assume that “children can’t understand what is happening” or because they believe that “children shouldn’t be exposed to something so awful.” Exposing children to cancer is indeed brutal and heart wrenching (don’t I now know it!) but children as young as age 2 are able to understand what is happening to them. The key is to communicate with them in developmentally appropriate ways.

Avoidance may feel better in the short term, but has the potential to do long-term damage. Even when a cancer diagnosis is not formally discussed, children know that something has happened and are consequently left alone with distressing information. This aloneness forces children to draw inaccurate conclusions or develop maladaptive ways of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. While it may seem hard to believe, a child’s imagination has the capacity to create things that are far worse than the reality.

The Silver Lining is that there are helpful tools for talking with children about cancer:

1. Plan ahead and think through what you are going to say.

2. Choose a time when you are calm, your children are well rested and no one is rushed.

3. Describe the disease in factual, truthful, and developmentally appropriate language.

4. Tell your children that cancer is not in any possible way contagious.

5. Reassure your children that they did absolutely nothing to cause the cancer.

6. Encourage your children to ask questions (frequently) and answer them to the best of your ability. If there is something that you don’t know the answer to, tell them that you will find out and get back to them.

7. Describe how their lives may change, e.g., disruption of routines.

8. Encourage your children to share their feelings.

9. Tell your children that they will be cared for by someone they know (and identify that person).

10. Seek professional assistance! Telling children about a cancer diagnosis in a family is emotionally difficult; however, there are professionals to help you every step of the way. Additionally, many hospitals and cancer centers have (wonderful!) professionally led support groups for children where they can ask questions and talk about their feelings and share experiences.

Including children in the disease diagnosis and treatment (using developmentally appropriate language), though emotionally burdensome and painful, will ultimately be the greatest gift that parents can give children.

This philosophy transcends illness. We can’t opt out of painful experiences in life. As much as I wish we could, we just can’t. These are the inherent challenges of being alive. Communicating with and including children is a great opportunity to teach them how to cope with life’s inevitable challenges.

While we cannot protect all of the world’s children from the big and little “lumps” (pun intended) of life, the manner in which the experience is handled lays the foundation for how children will handle the inevitable future “lumps” in the road. When there is trust, you can survive anything and everything.

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