Telling children about cancer

A mother holding a child during a sunset

Alongside receiving a cancer diagnosis, one of the toughest moments a person can face is having to tell their children that they have cancer. Finding the words can be difficult, especially when trying to process the information yourself. It’s challenging but a conversation many will have to have, especially if mum or dad could potentially be struggling physically. In this blog, we take a look around the Community and see how other members have approached this sensitive subject.

How do you approach this subject? Is there only one way to approach this? You can ask a professional such as a doctor or nurse, but maybe they haven’t experienced what other members have. The things they wish they had done differently whilst telling their children as well as the things that worked for them. The most important thing here is to start a conversation. Let’s embark on a journey, across the Community and see how this difficult subject matter is dealt with by members.

Here we can see the internal conflict that a member may be going through when it comes to telling a child:

“I have been wondering what I/we might say to our 7 year old son about his dad having cancer and his treatment. I have read some of the information out there but in my  head and maybe it’s because of my own issues and negative images and associations about the word, that I'm not sure whether to use the actual word "cancer" or to talk about it in more general terms. So he still knows daddy has not been feeling well and he needs an operation and medicine to make him better. I’m really struggling with this because I struggled with anxiety as a child so I am extremely conscious of creating an environment for him where he feels safe and secure. I don't want him worrying about dad or me.”
Online Community Member, Bowel (colon or rectal) Cancer forum

It’s important to share both what worked and what didn’t work, as it can possibly help other members to tackle this in the best possible way:

“The big mistake I made, I forgot they could read and they read the signposts on the hospital wards and were shocked I did not mention cancer to them. I was surprised they knew what it meant as that did not come from me!”
Online Community Member, Bowel (colon or rectal) Cancer forum

As difficult as it may be to have this conversation with children in general, it can be all the more difficult when it comes to a terminal diagnosis. Here is an example of a member reaching out for support for two very young children:

“We recently received a shock terminal diagnosis for my mother-in-law. Things have taken place very quickly, so it has all been a real shock. She is very close to my two young children, aged 4 and 5 years. They normally spend at least 1 or 2 days per week with her. I am looking for some advice as to what is best to tell them and how to explain everything to them. I don’t want to scare or worry them but I also don’t want to lie to them.”
Online Community Member, Family and Friends forum

A member reached out and provided the following response:

“Hello sorry to hear about your mother in law. My dad has terminal cancer. and my 2 children who has autism is really close to my dad too. I think all u can do is tell the truth... all me and my mam said to my 2. Was grandads really poorly. so there will be a time when he has to go in the sky with the angels... hope this helps stay strong xxx”
Online Community Member, Family and Friends forum

Another example shows a member asking for support regarding older children:

“Hello, I have recently been diagnosed with high-grade stage 1 bladder cancer.  I've had two TURBT procedures and will begin BCG chemo in the next couple of weeks.  My wife and I have recently separated and we have two children, aged 14 and 11.  They know that Dad is sore after some operations however we have not mentioned the C word as yet.  Now that I have a firm diagnosis I feel that the kids should know what's going on.  Their mother has been reluctant to talk about it and keeps postponing.  I disagree with her position”
Online Community Member, Bladder Cancer forum

They received the following message of support:

“My kids were grown up when I was first diagnosed and we kept them in the loop all along. We did have grandchildren of varying ages. We found it better to let the grandchildren know in bite size chunks. A basic introduction of I was not well and gave them further information along the way. No need to mention the C word straight away. Treatment is a long process and you can give more information as time goes by. The youngsters turned out to be really supportive and understanding. I hope it goes well or you. Best wishes.”
Online Community Member, Bladder Cancer forum

To conclude, these are just some of the many examples that are available across the Community, when it comes to approaching this subject matter. It’s important to take what other members have said and try to tailor it to your children as no one will know them better than you. Share your triumphs and let other members know what worked well for you regarding telling children. There is no right or wrong way to do it, feel free to take a look around the Community and see their way, after absorbing the experiences, be comfortable, confident and do it in your own way.

Please feel free to take a look at some of the resources that are available when it comes to telling children/young people about cancer:

Anonymous
  • Thank you for this post it is very timely for me as my daughter has recently been diagnosed with ALL ( acute lymphoblastic leukaemia ) She is over 18 so obviously knows what the situation is and is given all information directly but she has 3 sisters, 2 of whom are younger than her and as a mother it is very hard to help my youngest daughter get her emotions out, she has just bottled it all up, she is taking A-levels right now and has her exams starting next week and we only found out about her sisters cancer on May 13th so I think it is the only way she has of coping right now with her exams. I will try to arrange couselling for her after her exams to help her vent and find a way to cope with how she is feeling.

  • " . . . . I did not mention cancer to them. I was surprised they knew what it meant as that did not come from me!”

    My kids are a bit older (20 and 18).   I told them separately, just due to logistics, it wasn't the plan. But they both said (a) "did they catch it early?" (b) "will your hair fall out?" and (c) We know about cancer - seen it in films!"  Relaxed

    For me, the driver was to be open, ensure it was NOT a taboo subject, to make them aware, and encourage them to ask questions.  It's tricky the line you choose for stage 4 people, but this can be updated as more information becomes available as  treatment progresses.  

  • I have an incurable blood cancer and In my case my children are grown up, they're all in their 30's. The youngest, our only daughter, broke down and wept on the phone when my wife told her. After a while, she passed the phone to me but I passed it straight back because I couldn't speak. Even now, there's a tear running down my cheek. 

    Her son, our only grandson, and we're both very close. Every time we go out, he's straight onto my knee for a ride on my motorised scooter, always. He's 6 years old now but when he was 3, he asked me when I'm going to get better and and I said truthfully that I'm not. He must have gone straight downstairs and asked my daughter why. I don't know what she said but she said to me soon after not to tell him again because it would be too much for him. I haven't approached the subject since but sometime soon he's going to have to be told because he's going to be asking questions again I don't think he'll understand but we'll find a way. I was diagnosed 7 years ago, before he was born. 

    Tvman xx

  • Hi ,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on the blog. I'm sorry to hear about your daughter's diagnosis, it sounds like a difficult situation for all your children. I hope you have found the Community to be a place of kindness and support. Please remember, anyone from your household is free to call the Support Line on 0808 808 00 00, if you feel they need some urgent emotional and/or practical support.

    I wish you all and your children all the best,

    Syed

    Macmillan Community Team

  • Hi ,

    Thank you for reaching out on the blog and sharing your experience. Although it wasn't the plan to tell your kids separately, I hope they took it well. I would also like to thank you for being an active member on the the Community and hope you have found the site to be a place of kindness and support.

    Syed

    Macmillan Community Team