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

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Should I expect my child to be upset?

Some children become very upset when learning about a new cancer diagnosis, while others act as if nothing is wrong. The goal is to give the child a balanced point of view. The child should realize that cancer is a serious—but not hopeless—illness.

A child’s emotional reaction to this news will depend on many things, including how the information is given to them and the child’s experience with illness. It’s important for parents to choose a time when they are feeling fairly calm to talk to their children. In a 2-parent household, it’s a good idea for parents to talk to their children together. For single parents, it may help to ask an adult relative or friend who is a stable, consistent influence in the child’s life to be with them if they’re feeling a bit shaky about the talk. If people are feeling upset or unsure about what to say, it might be better to wait until their emotions are a bit more under control. That is not to say that parents need to pretend that there is nothing to worry about. It’s OK if their kids see them crying sometimes. Parents can admit that this is an upsetting time, that cancer is a scary disease and that it’s OK to have strong feelings about it. But none of this means that the family won’t be able to handle it.

Sometimes parents worry about showing unpleasant emotions in front of their children. They may worry this will scare the children. Or they may fear that their grief, anxiety, or pain will somehow affect their child’s ability to cope with the illness. In the media and from others, you often get advice to keep a “positive attitude.” While it’s true you might be better able to handle cancer and its treatment when you are able to look at things in a positive light, that is not always possible. When people try to deny the very real feelings of fear and sadness, which are a part of any cancer diagnosis, the effort often just doesn’t work. The energy it takes to hold in “bad” feelings can make coping much harder. For many people, a grieving process starts with a cancer diagnosis. It’s normal to be sad and upset after being told you have cancer. It often feels as if nothing will ever be the same. Patients grieve for the loss of safety and predictability in their lives, and for the future that may not turn out as planned. When they face these feelings, it’s much easier for them to work on having a positive mindset the rest of the time about the challenges ahead.

No one wants to alarm their children by being hysterical. But there’s nothing wrong with shedding a few tears when your family has a crisis.

Parents can tell their kids that there will be times when they will need to cry, because that can help them feel better. Parents can assure them that at some point they won’t need to cry about the situation, but it’s OK to express all of their feelings. Everyone deals with problems in a different way, and it’s fine to feel angry or sad as long as you don’t use these feelings to hurt others. It’s important for parents to give themselves permission and time to figure out what’s best for them and each family member.

If other family members have died from cancer in the past, children may assume that will happen again. It may help for parents to explain that there are more than 100 different kinds of cancer, and there are many kinds of treatments. The kids need to know that all patients respond differently to treatment and have different outcomes for the future. Make sure they understand that each person is different, and just because Grandpa died 5 years ago doesn’t mean the same thing will happen now. Cancer treatment changes from year to year and better treatments are being tested all the time. Even though no one can predict the future, more people are approaching cancer treatment today with new hope.


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