Ask the Doctor: Talking to Children About a Cancer Diagnosis

It's impossible to shield children from sadness, but parents can take steps to make sad or disturbing news easier to hear -- and bear.

It’s impossible to shield children from sadness, but parents can take steps to make sad or disturbing news easier to hear — and bear.

Dr. Cheryl Book, Director of Family and Clinical Services, answers parents’ questions about how to break the news that someone a child knows has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.  

Unfortunately, it is quite probable that most children will know someone who is diagnosed with cancer during their childhoods. It could be a friend or teacher, a neighbor or a family member. It might be someone on their periphery, or someone close to them. Your child will have questions and will look to you for answers. The following pointers may make a difficult conversation easier.

I begin with a few pieces of advice. The first is that it is ultimately more traumatic not to answer a child’s questions. Avoiding the subject may allow misunderstandings and fears to grow. The second is to keep your answers age-appropriate. Young children will not understand the details, but they need to feel that you, the adult, are in control and can take care of them.

What is cancer?

Our body is made up of millions of cells, so tiny that you need a microscope to see them, that work together. Cancer cells don’t allow our normal, healthy cells to work properly. They can make us very sick.

Is cancer contagious?

Definitely not.

Did I make the person sick?

Again, definitely not. There is nothing that you or anyone else did or said that caused the illness.

 What causes cancer?

There are many kinds of cancer, and there is still a lot that we don’t know about what causes it. Sometimes cancer may be caused by a specific chemical or pollution or by a person’s smoking or other unhealthy behavior. But sometimes it just happens, and we may never know why.

 Do children get cancer?

Unfortunately, yes, but it is very rare for children to get cancer. More adults get cancer than children.

Is there medicine that will make the person better?

There are different treatments for different types of cancer. Sometimes cancer cells join together to create a tumor. Some tumors can be removed by an operation. Some people will take medicine called chemotherapy or will have something called radiation therapy that is done with a special machine. Sometimes people will need more than one kind of treatment, and it may span several years.

 Does cancer treatment hurt?

The doctors can give patients medicine that takes away the pain. People who have surgery are usually sore afterward and it can take time to heal and get better.

Why does the person look different?

Sometimes the cancer treatment damages healthy cells as well as killing the cancer cells. When that happens, we call it a side effect of the treatment. You may see people whose hair has fallen out, who have lost or gained weight, who feel tired or sick, or who have trouble eating because of mouth sores. When treatment ends, these things usually go away.

Will the person die?

Doctors work very hard to help people live. (The patient) is also doing everything possible to make it through this illness.

Some more to remember:

Honesty is the best policy when talking to children. Including them in discussions and answering their questions (with age-appropriate information, of course) will build a needed sense of trust. Remember that even if you choose not to talk about the subject, chances are your child will find out anyway. Children hear more than you think and often overhear adult conversations (or worse, parts of the). It is better that they get the entire story from you than half from their imaginations.

Finally, there are always professionals who are willing and able to help parents who feel overwhelmed by talking with children about the serious illness of a friend, family member or themselves. Engaging professional help is a sign of strength and resourcefulness.

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