Communicating with Children

Why is it important to tell children about a loved one's cancer?

Cancer is a very difficult secret to keep from children. Often children will know something is wrong. They may sense your worry, or overhear your conversations, or unknowingly, friends may talk to them about it before you do. Without appropriate, accurate information, children may imagine the worst. In addition, if you keep information from them at first, they may not trust that you are telling them the truth later on.

What should children be told about cancer?

What and how you tell children about cancer depends on their age. The goal should be to talk to them at a level they can understand and in a way that they can be prepared for the ways they may be affected. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), all children need to know:

  • The name of the cancer including the part of the body that is affected - "ovarian cancer."
  • How it will be treated.
  • How their own lives will be affected.

It is also important to talk with them and reassure them about other worries they might have. Some common concerns that children have voiced include:

  • Concern that cancer is contagious.
  • Concern that everyone who gets cancer dies.
  • How should children be told about cancer?

    Include your loved one in the conversation if possible. Choose a time when you are feeling calm and your emotions are feeling under control. There is nothing wrong, however, with letting them know that you are sad or upset or worried. Encourage them to express their feelings and emotions - anger, fear, and guilt.

    Many children will ask whether their loved one is going to die. This is a very difficult question to answer and depends on many things. With ovarian cancer, the answer will depend on how advanced the cancer was at diagnosis and how well your loved one responds to treatment. Even if the cancer comes back, many women live with ovarian cancer for many years. Here are some examples provided by the American Cancer Society of how to respond to a child's questions about whether his or her loved one is going to die.

    • "The doctors have told me that her chances of being cured are very good. I'm going to believe that until I have reason to believe something else. I hope you can believe that too. I'll tell you if I get new or different information."
    • "There is no way to know right now what's going to happen. We'll know more after the first treatments are finished. When we know more, we'll be sure to tell you."
    • "Her cancer is a hard one to treat but she's going to do everything she can to get better. It's impossible to know right now what will happen down the road. What you can be sure of is that I'll be honest with you about what is going on. If you can't stop worrying, please tell me so I can make it better."

    Finding more information

    The following websites, pamphlets and books are excellent resources for more information on talking with children about cancer.

    • "When Someone in Your Family Has Cancer." Available through the National Cancer Institute at: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/when-someone-in-your-family/allpages.
    • "Can I Still Kiss You? Answering Your Children's Questions About Cancer" by Neil Russell. Published by HCI, 2001.
    • "When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children" by Wendy S. Harpham. Published by HarperCollins, 2001.
    • "Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing with Diagnosis." Available through the American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org or by telephone at 1-800-ACS-2345.

    Other titles available from the American Cancer Society at 1-800-ACS-2345:

    • "It Helps to Have Friends When Mom or Dad Has Cancer."
    • "Because Someone I Love Has Cancer: Kids' Activity Book."
    • "Cancer in the Family: Helping Children Cope with a Parent's Illness" by Sue Heiny, Joan F. Hermann, Katherine V. Bruss and Joy L. Fincannon.

    Additional information about resources and services available for children in your community may be found at your local library, physician's office or cancer treatment center.

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