Talking to Children about Your Cancer

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Even though your children will be upset when they learn about your cancer, don't pretend that everything is okay. Even very young children can sense when something is wrong. They will see that you don't feel well, are away from home more often, or can't spend as much time with them as you used to. Children as young as 18 months old begin to notice what's going on around them. It's important to be honest. Telling the truth is better than letting them imagine the worst. Give your kids time to ask questions and express their feelings.

What Children of All Ages Need to Know

About Cancer

  • Nothing your child did, thought, or said caused you to get cancer.
  • Just because you have cancer doesn't mean you'll die from it. In fact, many people live with cancer for a long time.
  • Your child can't make you well. But there are ways he or she can make you feel better.
  • Scientists are finding many new ways to treat cancer.

About Living with Cancer in the Family

  • Your child is not alone. Other children have parents who have cancer.
  • It's okay to be upset, angry, or scared.
  • Your child can't do anything to change the fact that you have cancer.
  • Family members may act differently because they're worried about you.
  • You will make sure that your children are taken care of, no matter what happens to you.

About What They Can Do

  • They can help you by doing nice things like washing dishes or drawing you a picture.
  • They should still go to school and take part in sports and other fun activities.
  • They can talk to other adults for support, such as teachers, family members, and religious or spiritual leaders.

How Kids May Act When You Have Cancer

Children can react to cancer in many different ways. For example, they may:

  • Be confused, scared, lonely, or overwhelmed
  • Feel guilty and think that something they did or said caused your cancer
  • Feel angry when they are asked to be quiet or to do more chores around the house
  • Miss the amount of attention they're used to getting
  • Regress and behave as they did when they were much younger
  • Get into trouble at school or at home
  • Be clingy and afraid to leave the house

Learn what can help children and teens who have a family member with cancer.

Teens

If you have a teenager, know that they're at a time in their lives when they're trying to break away and be independent from their parents. Try to get them to talk about their feelings and ask questions. Tell them as much as they want to know about your cancer. Ask them for their opinions and, if possible, let them help you make decisions.

Teens may want to talk with other people in their lives. Friends can be a great source of support for them, especially those who also have a serious illness in their family. Other family members, teachers, coaches, and spiritual leaders can also help. Encourage your teenage children to talk about their fears and feelings with people they trust.

For more information about support for teens, you may find it helpful to share this e-book When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens with them.

Everything has changed now that Mom has cancer. I want to be with her, but I also want to hang out with my friends. She needs me to help out with my little brother, but what I really want to do is play football like I used to.

Jake

Adult Children

If you have adult children, your relationship with them may change now that you have cancer. You may:

  • Ask them to help with making health care decisions, paying bills, or taking care of the house
  • Ask them to explain medical information
  • Need them to go to the doctor with you or pick up medicines
  • Rely on them for emotional support
  • Feel awkward when they help with your physical care

For some parents, it may be hard to ask for comfort and care from their grown children. But it's important to talk about cancer with your family members, even if they get upset or worry about you. Try to include them when talking about your treatment. Let them know the choices you would like them to make about your care, in case you're too sick to make the choices yourself. (See Advance Directives.) Recognize that it may be hard for your children to have this talk and that, like you, they're trying to adjust to your illness.

For more details and age-related tips on talking to kids, your family and friends may find it helpful to read the NCI booklet, When Someone You Love Is Being Treated for Cancer.

  • Posted: December 2, 2014

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