Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis

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What if my child asks if I’m going to die?

The question, “Are you going to die?” needs to be answered—even if it’s not asked. Whether or not you openly talk about it, you can be sure that your loved ones are worrying and thinking about death. We share some ideas in this section for ways you can respond to questions about death.

This question causes the most distress for families. It’s a good idea to rehearse how you are going to respond to this, either with someone else or just to yourself. There are some things you should know before you decide how to answer this question. First, admit to yourself that this is a scary question for you as well as your family. It’s a hard question for children to ask, and they may never have the courage to ask it outright. Plan a time to bring it up to them even if they don’t ask.

There is usually no way to know at first if a person will die from cancer. It depends on the type of cancer, where it is in the body, and the patient’s response to treatment. Even for cancers with a very poor outlook, a person’s response to treatment can vary. Cancer is a chronic disease, not always a deadly one. People can live with cancer for many years—even those cancers which may over time cause death. For most people, this means they will deal with the real chance of death from the cancer at some time in the future. In the meantime, the family’s focus must be on how to live with cancer. For cancers that have already spread to other parts of the body (metastasized), parents will need to be direct and give children information based on each child’s age and stage of development.

So, in talking with a child about whether the parent will die from the cancer, there are a number of different messages. Here are some examples of what other parents have said:

Sometimes people do die from cancer. I’m not expecting that to happen because the doctors have told me they have very good treatments these days, and my type of cancer usually does get better with treatment.

The doctors have told me that my chances of being cured are very good. I’m going to believe that until I have reason to believe something else. I hope you can believe that too. I’ll tell you if I find out anything new or different.

There’s no way to know right now what’s going to happen. I’ll know more after the first treatments are finished. When I know more, I’ll be sure to tell you.

Right now there’s not a lot known about the kind of cancer I have. But I’m going to give it my best shot and do everything I can to get well.

My cancer is a hard one to treat but I’m going to do everything I can to get better. No one can know right now what will happen down the road. What you can be sure of is that I’ll be honest with you about what’s going on. If you can’t stop worrying, please tell me so that we can work on that together.

Clearly, what people tell their children depends on how they understand their type of cancer and its potential outcome. Even with an uncertain future, patients still need to work on what they must do to live with their illness. Children need to do the same. No matter what words are used, one of the most important things for parents to get across to the children is their desire to tell the truth. This does not mean that parents should tell their kids everything they know as soon as they know it. It means that children should be given truthful information when they need it in order to cope well from day to day. A parent might say, for example:

I don’t want you to worry about the future at this point. Let’s think about what’s going on right now. If that should change, I promise you I’ll tell you. I will always try to tell you the truth. I want you to ask me any questions you have and I’ll do my best to answer them.


Last Medical Review: 07/20/2012
Last Revised: 07/20/2012