How Do I Tell My Children and Family I Have Cancer?

A mom and daughter wearing face masks.
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The old saying goes, there's no good time for bad news. There are few instances that fit more appropriately than a cancer diagnosis. You're running the gamut of emotions: fear, worry, uncertainty, confusion, possibly even denial or anger. While you're trying to process your own feelings and answer the dozens of questions circling your mind, you stop on one — how am I going to tell my kids?

Luckily, you don't have to make the decision alone. When it comes to preparing yourself and your children with the reality of your diagnosis, there are very few right and wrong answers, only personal choices you can make to try and strike a balance of comfort for you and your family, even when comfort seems impossible. Here are a few things to consider when breaking the news.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Children can sense even from an early age when no one has given them information, and this can be extremely difficult for them. Rather than letting the child sort out their feelings on their own, it's important to make them feel included and connected, especially in the process of a new diagnosis. Sometimes, their imaginations can be worse than reality, so use simple, concrete words when explaining any diagnosis to your child.

Consider Age and Development

The biggest factor is the age of the child. A 5-year-old wouldn't understand a grim diagnosis the way a teenager might. Most of the time, especially at young ages, the child is going to follow the parents' reaction. The child thinks, If my parents aren't alarmed, I don't have to be alarmed. Parents know their children best, so we encourage them to decide the best course for explanation based on the individual.

Consider Your Treatment

Your treatment can impact your children too, not just the diagnosis. Someone who is going to receive chemotherapy and lose their hair, for instance, might want to prepare their child for what's going to happen. But if it's a situation where the parent is coming for radiation or outpatient surgery treatment with fewer noticeable repercussions that depends on the child's comfort level.

Consider Normalizing the Environment

Some of the first steps child life specialists take with children is to normalize the environment with developmental appropriate play. This allows them to assess the child's readiness to hear information, and depending on that readiness we can determine the actions of the next interventions.

Some types of interventions can be:

  • Providing the child with a stuffed animal
  • Decorating the patient's room
  • Journaling
  • Scrapbooking
  • Making videos
  • Jewelry making
  • Outside play (hide and seek and other games)

Consider Your Outreach Options

At AdventHealth, we have social workers at most of our campuses as part of the cancer care team. They can provide illness adjustment counseling for both parents and family members. Generally speaking, it helps to alleviate anxiety especially with the anxiety and emotional part of diagnosis and treatment. Specialists can have a big impact in helping not just kids, but the entire family, cope with cancer.

Learn more about how we support you and your whole family during your cancer care journey.

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