How to explain cancer to your child

Expert tips to broach this difficult topic with your little one and help them understand.

27 May 2015
by Meg de Jong

It’s every parent’s deepest desire to keep their offspring's childhood as light and carefree as possible, but the sad reality is that the harshness of real life often creeps in. A serious illness such as cancer is very difficult for a young mind to understand, whether the child is suffering from the disease, or they have to watch a loved one go through it.

Explaining the situation in a way that the child can understand will help them to cope better. Naturally a child’s level of understanding varies greatly depending on their age. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) explains that children under three will have almost no understanding of what’s happening, while a seven-year-old might understand it at the most basic level. Children between seven and 12 will be able to understand a more detailed explanation of cancer, and by the time they’re a teenager their understanding will be quite complex.

7 tips for this important discussion

Make use of this advice to prepare for this tough discussion with your child – and to ensure that you keep communicating with them about it:

  1. Be prepared. Take some time to decide how much you want to tell your child before talking to them, advises clinical psychologist Mareli Fischer. It may be helpful to practice what you want to say beforehand.
  2. Keep it private. “Have the talk with your child in a setting that is private and where they will feel safe,” recommends Fischer. Somewhere with minimal interruptions or time constraints is ideal.
  3. Keep things simple yet accurate. “It is very important to be clear and factual, and to provide children with the correct information,” advises Fischer. Be honest about tests, treatments and pain management. “White lies that are intended to soften the blow may end up confusing the child with inaccurate information,” agrees clinical psychologist Dr Carla Dukas.
  4. Strike a balance. “Balance optimism and realism when talking to a child about cancer to prevent confusion or distress,” says Fischer. She recommends being prepared to discuss death, as well as more practical matters such as the side effects of treatment and how this might change the family routine.
  5. Keep the lines of communication open. One talk will likely not be enough. “Often children's questions can be answered in small, bite-size pieces, and they ask you the follow-on question when they're emotionally ready for the next installment,” explains Dr Dukas. Encourage them to ask questions, and share your feelings with them to encourage them to do the same.
  6. Debunk myths and fanciful fears. Older children may start getting their information from other sources (such as TV, the Internet or their peers) and it will be very important to keep the conversation going so that you’re able to correct any untrue information (for example, that cancer is contagious).
  7. Be armed with plenty of reassurance. Younger children may look for a specific cause for the cancer and blame themselves for something they did or thought, so keep on reassuring them that it is not their fault and that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.

If at any time you feel unable to cope, seek support from your friends, a medical professional, support group, or religious resources.

For more info

Visit the CANSA website or call CANSA's helpline on 0800 22 66 22

Read More: Cancer Super Section