Updated 15 March 2017

Explaining cancer to your child

The age of the child is very important in deciding how to explain cancer. The maturity level of the child is also important, as this will help parents decide their course of action


The age of the child is very important in deciding how to explain cancer. The maturity level of the child is also important, as this will help parents decide their course of action.

Children from a young age, have a perception of injury and disease. The problem with cancer is that it often is not externally visible and that the child only recognises the disease by its symptoms.

Toddlers with cancer. Very young children have a limited capacity to understand what is going on. Be there with them and accept the fact that they will find medical procedures frightening and probably will cry. Let them. Your honesty about the fact that injections will hurt, will help the child trust you. Try to be with them always for the duration of their treatment. It is much less daunting if there is a familiar face nearby. If you have to leave, tell them you love them and that you will be back soon. Tell them about the ‘bad guys’ making them ill and explain that the treatment will help to chase these away.

Young children. Young children ( 3 – 7) often think they did something to cause the illness. Reassure them that this is not the case. They also need to be told that they did not catch it from someone else. Explain again and again that the cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence – children this age have very vivid imaginations and often also have a tendency to dramatise things. If they realise that parents have been less than honest with them, they will easily assume that they are dying. Children need to know the facts – explain it to them in language they can understand. Call in the help of a counsellor here if you are uncertain on how to do this.

Older children (7-12) can understand medical procedures and can understand the importance of sticking to treatment programmes. They also can understand medical facts concerning their disease. Don’t keep these away from them, but don’t let them get obsessed. Get a counsellor to help explain medical facts if you are having difficulty.Your child needs to know constantly that you love them and are there for them. Some children in this age group can be very mature and others very childlike – parents have to decide on a course of action depending on how mature the child is.

Adolescents. Adolescents can be difficult to deal with – they understand the connection between cancer and possible death. They need to be reassured that great strides have been made in the field of cancer treatment. As is, adolescence is a turbulent time, in which the authority of parents often gets challenged. Though it is not necessary to dwell on topics like death or possible long-term complications, it is not wise to avoid them completely. Be honest, assure your child that everything possible is being done and also assure him or her of your love. Take care to encourage social contact with friends. This is the age group where children start getting almost more support from their friends than their parents.

10 General tips

  • Explain as much medical background as your child can grasp- obviously in terminology and language that is age-appropriate.
  • Don’t lie to your child – he/she is not stupid.
  • Don’t shy away from talking about topics like pain or death.
  • Don’t let your child see you being upset or panicky – it will frighten them.
  • Do join a family support group.
  • Keep your relationship with your spouse healthy – the stress could get to you both.
  • Choose the right doctor, who is sensitive to emotional issues as well.
  • Provide a variety of activities that don’t require much movement – puzzles, video games, board games and so forth.
  • Don’t isolate your child from other children – social contact is crucial.
  • Acknowledge children’s fears as well as the fact that some things are beyond your control.
  • Read more:
    Tips for parents of children with cancer
    Living with cancer - the medical side


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