User post: Talking to Kids About Cancer--5 Things to Keep in Mind

  • What do you say to a child when it comes to the tricky--and emotional--topic of cancer?
  • How much does a 5 year-old--or a 15 year-old--need to know about a family member's diagnosis?
  • Should you bare all of the facts or try to gloss over cancer information with children?
  • Is it better to wait or share information immediately?
  • Does it really matter if a child knows the truth about a diagnosis or not?
  • Exactly what words, phrases, or terms are best to use with children?
Although it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, breast cancer is a disease that deserves more than just one month of "special" pink, star-studded attention. Too many of my friends and family members have been affected by breast cancer--spirits ravished, bodies destroyed, families forever changed--that it's high time to put some serious money into research, research into practice, and practice into finding treatments that will ultimately lead to a cure. Until then, many, many children will be touched by breast cancer--and cancer in every other form.

So how do we talk to kids about cancer? What are the best ways of approaching a subject that for years was brushed aside, not even spoken out loud, and still carries with it such uncertainty and fear that many adults don't know how to handle it themselves? There's certainly no 'correct' way, but I've done a lot of reading and research which brought me to five general guidelines.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind when talking to kids about cancer:

1. A child's age will determine exactly how much information to share and how much they will understand. Little ones, 3-5 years old, are able to handle only a fraction of the information that a teenager can, so especially if there are mixed ages of children in a family, age must be a consideration when sharing news about a cancer diagnosis. That means that time needs to be set aside for each individual child to talk with an adult about a diagnosis so to attend to each child's cognitive ability is taken into consideration.

2. Kids need to know the facts. No matter what age, children should be told four things: 1. the name of the cancer; 2. the part of the body that is affected; 3. how the cancer will be treated; 4. how their lives will be affected. They need to be kept up to date with age-appropriate information throughout the course of treatment.

3. The language we use carries a ton of weight. Only using the word 'sick' might make children think that they can catch cancer, that it is contagious. For this reason, it is important to use the words 'disease' and 'cancer' along with whatever other words your child can handle from the American Cancer Society's list of words to describe cancer and its treatment.

4. Children need constant support and time for processing. Kids need to know that the cancer is not their fault and that they are in no way responsible for a loved one getting cancer. They need to know that they will be taken care of during this challenging time and always. Repeat these facts with clarity and with frequency. And understanding that the way kiddos process heavy information like this may manifest itself in acting out, isolation, or just unusual behavior, so adults need to be aware.

5. There's a wealth of information out there--find it and use it. More detailed guides for parents are available, and many are incredibly well designed. Books, coloring pages, pamphlets, and websites can help cancer become a familiar topic in your family (with the understanding that everything need to be done in moderation). Local support groups, school counselors, and trained social service professionals are ready and willing to provide families with connections to the resources they need, so there's no reason to walk this uncertain road alone.

I've read dozens of documents over the past few weeks trying to gather information for this post. Many thanks to the following sites for providing me with the majority of resources:
And thank you to author Neyal Ammary-Risch for allowing me to use an image from her text, In Mommy's Garden, a fantastic book on talking to children about cancer, for this post.

You can find Amy over at teach mama, where she shares the ways she sneaks in a little bit of learning into her children's every day or at we teach, a forum she created for parents and teachers to share ideas, learn from each other, and grow as educators. And as an important fyi, Amy found inspiration for this post from several of her close friends currently battling breast cancer. In particular, she thanks her good friend Susan who is one of the most amazing, talented, intelligent women Amy knows and who is currently undergoing treatment for inflammatory breast cancer. Thank you, Susan and many others, for being models of strength and beauty during your most difficult times.