How Do You Talk to Children about Cancer?

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How do you talk to children about Cancer?

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is challenging at any age, but for children in particular, it can be hard to understand what’s happening.

When talking to your children about cancer, it’s important to approach the topic with care and sensitivity.

Here are some tips to help you have age-appropriate conversations:

Plan ahead:

You are bound to feel highly emotional so it’s a good idea to get a piece of paper and a pen and jot down the key things you want to say to your children and family.

It helps to give you clarity and confidence & reduces your sense of overwhelm.

Also reflect on the possible questions your children might ask so you have an answer ready.

Use simple and clear language:

Tailor your language to the child’s age and comprehension level. Explain cancer in simple terms they can understand, avoiding complex medical jargon.

Be honest and direct:

Children can sense when something is wrong, so it’s essential to be honest about the situation. Provide information about cancer in a straightforward manner, focusing on the basic facts and avoiding unnecessary details.

Encourage questions:

Let your child ask questions and provide them with the opportunity to express their worries & concerns. Address their inquiries honestly and with patience, reassuring them that their feelings and questions are valid.

Listen actively:

Pay close attention to your child’s reactions and emotions during the conversation. Give them the space to share their thoughts, fears, and worries. Active listening helps them feel heard and understood.

Offer reassurance:

Assure your child that they are not responsible for the illness and that cancer is not contagious. Reassure them that there are doctors and medical professionals who are working to help you or the person with cancer.

Tailor the information:

Adjust the level of detail and complexity based on your child’s age and maturity. Younger children may require simpler explanations, while older children may be able to understand more in-depth discussions.

Use visual aids:

Visual aids such as diagrams, books, or illustrations can be helpful in explaining cancer to children. These tools make it easier for them to grasp complex concepts and provide a visual reference for understanding.

Maintain routines and stability:

Children thrive on routine and stability, so try to maintain their regular schedules and activities as much as possible. This helps provide a sense of normalcy and security during challenging times.

Be open about emotions:

Encourage your child to express their feelings and emotions. Let them know that it’s normal to feel sad, angry, or scared. Provide support and reassurance while acknowledging their emotions.

Seek additional support:

If needed, consider involving a counsellor, or support group specialising in helping children cope with cancer-related issues. These professionals can provide additional guidance and support for both your child and your family.

Remember, every child is unique, and their reactions to cancer may vary. Adjust your approach based on their individual needs, and be prepared for ongoing conversations as they process the information over time.

Here are some helpful books to have those big conversations with your children. 

HuffPost Parents asked Mary Costello, a former teacher to recommend books that will help children understand their own or a loved one’s illness.

Here are Mary Costello’s picks for books and my suggestions for books and websites that will help your child cope and will help your child understand the disease, from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.

I hope these books and recommended websites will help you to have those difficult conversations with your family and support you during a difficult time.

Cancer Hates Kisses

Author Jessica Reid Sliwerski was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the birth of her daughter. Her book, “Cancer Hates Kisses,” is told from the perspective of a child whose mum is battling cancer. Also, a very helpful feature in the book  is  “A Note from a Cancer Specialist” within the book for tips about talking to young children about a parent’s diagnosis.


Hair for Mama

Told from the perspective of an 8-year-old boy whose mom has cancer, Kelly A. Tinkham’s book “Hair for Mama” is based on a conversation she had with her own son, who wanted to give her his hair when hers started to fall out during chemotherapy.

Our Dad Is Getting Better

A companion book to “Our Mom Is Getting Better,” “Our Dad Is Getting Better” is written and illustrated by three children ? Alex, Emily and Anna Rose Silver ? about their father’s experience recovering from cancer treatments. This book looks at the recovery that’s needed even after chemo, and bonus, it’s written about a dad, which can be hard to find.


You Are The Best Medicine

Julie Aigner Clark wrote “You Are the Best Medicine” following her own journey. The story connects the ways that her child cared for and nurtured her through her treatments with how mothers care for and nurture their children through the early years of life.


The Year My Mother Was Bald

The Year My Mother Was Bald” is great for older kids who want to understand cancer from a scientific standpoint. Author Ann Speltz includes a long list of resources that might help families during their cancer journey.


And Still They Bloom: A Family’s Journey Of Loss And Healing

Author Amy Rovere lost her own mother to cancer when she was 9; now she works for the American Cancer Society. “And Still They Bloom” is a longer picture book that tells the story of two children who are grieving the loss of their mother in very different ways.


The Invisible String

Though not about cancer, “The Invisible String” is an excellent book for children to read with their loved ones at a time when life is changing, the future seems uncertain and scary, and someone they love is very, very sick. The message of Patrice Karst’s book is powerful: No matter what, you’re always connected to your loved ones.


Stickers On Her Bald Head

 Explaining Cancer and Chemo Hair Loss to Children in a Fun Way – Written by a Two Time Cancer Survivor by Chelsey Gomez

This is a picture book with a rhyming story. It puts the concepts of cancer and chemotherapy in gentle and easy to understand terms.


Mum, Where is Your Hair?

A rhyming story which reveals a curious child’s search for their mother’s hair, to help remove children’s confusion about hair loss by Alicia Gleeson-Cherneski 

Here are also some activity books and guides for children:

“Because… Someone I Love Has Cancer,” by the American Cancer Society, is part journal, part activity book for children whose loved one has cancer.

“When Someone Has a Very Serious Illness: Children Can Learn to Cope with Loss and Change,” by Marge Heegaard, is a workbook and journal that will help kids process the changes in their lives when a loved one has an illness.

“Cancer Party! Explain Cancer, Chemo, and Radiation to Kids in a Totally Non-Scary Way” was written as a guide by Sara Olsher based on her own conversations sharing her cancer diagnosis with her 6-year-old daughter.

Click on the link to read the full article on Huffpost 

For more support about: How to talk to children about Cancer.

Tips for talking with children about Cancer
  1. Think before you talk.
  2. Pick your time carefully.
  3. Choose who will talk.
  4. Find a good place.
  5. Keep it simple.
  6. Remember their age.
  7. Be prepared to answer difficult questions.
  8. Allow time for your child to absorb the news.
  9. Be as open and honest as possible.
  10. Explain the changes they can expect.
  11. Encourage your children to express their feelings.
  12. Reassure your children.

Here is a very helpful, comprehensive article from Cancer Centre   about why should you talk with your children about cancer.

Talking to children and teenagers

Click here for advice from Macmillan Cancer Support

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