Being a parent means sometimes taking the time to talk to your children about things that are uncomfortable. From teaching them to keep their bodies safe to teaching them the truth about where babies come from, some of these things are sad and might seem scary—or not make sense—to a child. But helping kids through the hard stuff is all part of the parent job description and many times, these tough conversations can’t be avoided.
Cancer is one of those topics. Children are familiar with cancer, and they know it’s something bad. They, understandably so, may not fully comprehend what cancer is and what it means to be diagnosed with cancer. But when talking to a child about cancer, especially if you need to break the news that a loved one has been diagnosed, there are some things to consider.
How to Break the News
Clinical psychologist Hüdanur Akkuzu said many parents hesitate to talk to their children about cancer when the child, parent, grandparent, or someone else they love is diagnosed. Akkuzu wanted to remind parents that children are often aware that something is going on. “It is best to explain in words they can understand,” said Akkuzu. “It can be better to inform the child from time to time because waiting for information for a long time can lead the child to imagine worse scenarios. Tell them what can happen and what to expect. Answer their questions as much as you can.”
How Children of Different Ages Understand the Term “Cancer”
Children have a different understanding of certain scenarios depending on their age. So, depending on the age of your child, they will process this information differently. Here Akkuzu breaks down how much your child will understand based on their age:
- Up to 2 years old: Children cannot really understand what exactly cancer is. However, it doesn’t mean that you can lie to them. Be honest with what’s happening. If the child is diagnosed with cancer, let them know some injections can hurt them for a while, so it is OK for them to cry. If someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, let them know their parents or grandparents can feel tired and sad.
- Children 2 to 7 years old: Can understand why the treatment is necessary to get well. Explain cancer by using simple words like “bad cells.” You can also use playing games or drawing to help them understand.
- Children 7 to 12 years old: Can understand the details better. Yet, be careful to use short and straightforward information. They can ask more questions. Be patient in answering their concerns and staying calm.
- Children older than 12 years: Can fully understand what cancer is and the side effects of the treatment, so you can explain by using some medical terms.
How Children Are Affected by Their Parents’ Reactions
Sadly, cancer is a part of life, even when it comes to our children. As much as we as parents want to shield and protect our children from any sadness or harm, we owe it to our children to be honest. And how children handle the news will be most affected by their parents’ reactions and approaches to cancer. Therefore, it can help parents to offer better support to their children by being more aware of their own emotions and coping mechanisms first.
Akkuzu then said to let children know that it is OK to cry and feel sad. “Listen to them, let them know you love them, and always be there. Encourage them to spend time with their friends or do the activities they enjoy. Let them know that it is OK to enjoy and have fun.”
Three moms shared how they talked to their children about their own cancer diagnoses.
Charissa Bates, Breast Cancer Survivor
Charissa Bates, 36, a children’s mental health therapist and author, was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer at 33. It is a rare and aggressive cancer. Her children were 2, 5, and 7 at the time. “My oldest son’s best friends at the time both had a parent die of cancer,” said Bates. “We were so concerned about how to tell our children. We didn’t know what to expect, so it was really hard to decide how to talk to them.”
“We told them I had the ‘good’ cancer. No cancer is good, but my kids didn’t need to know that it had a lower survival rate and that it was the most aggressive breast cancer. My 2-year-old didn’t understand. My 5-year-old was basically like OK thanks for letting me know. My 7-year-old asked a few questions, and then we explained how it was a better cancer to get and treatable. Sometimes I wonder if we were telling them what we needed to hear. We had no clue what to expect.” Bates’ last chemo was in July 2020.
Michela, Breast Cancer Survivor
Michela was 41 years old when diagnosed with breast cancer. Her children were just 9 and 5 at the time. While she has luckily been in remission for six years, she recalls how difficult it was to tell her children and credits speaking with counselors at her treatment center for giving her insight. “It was difficult,” said Michela. “At first, I didn’t want to because I wasn’t sure what to say or how they would react. I was going to have chemo, and it wouldn’t be easy to hide that something was going on. I was open and honest with them. I told them I was going to be treated for cancer and though I may be ‘different looking’ with treatments, I was still mom and still me. Loving them no matter what.”
Lisa Sepulveda, Breast Cancer Survivor
Lisa Sepulveda, a Chief Client Officer at Edelman, was diagnosed with breast cancer on her 47th birthday. “I know, that sounds painful, and at the moment, it was”, said Sepulveda. “My daughters, Sara and Megan, were 16 and 15 years old. My mom died when I was 19, so I knew the news was going to be hard for the girls. But we waited for a relatively calm evening, and we sat down together and shared the news. I started with, “Don’t worry, I am going to be alright!’” Sepulveda celebrated 11 years cancer free on April 4, 2022. “I chose April 4th as my anniversary date as it marks 11 years since my double mastectomy.”