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

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How much should I tell my children about my treatment?

Exactly what you tell your children depends on many things, like their ages, personalities, and what you know about your treatment. You need to find the right balance between too much information, which could overwhelm the child, and too little information, which might raise more questions. After talking about what cancer is and where it’s located, children should be told how it might affect you and them. This discussion should include how their lives might change as a result of your treatment, and what plans you’ve made to be sure that they are cared for no matter what happens.

People sometimes talk about cancer and its treatment as if all cancers are the same for everyone. But that’s not the case. Different types of cancer act differently in the body and require different treatments. And people react differently to the same treatment. Make sure your children understand this.

If you’re going to lose your hair, tell your kids so they will not be afraid when it happens. If you will be in the hospital, children need to know where, for how long, what’s going to happen in the hospital, whether they can visit or at least call, and who will take care of them. People are often anxious and uncomfortable during treatment. The children should be told that Mom or Dad might be a bit grouchy or irritable, but that it’s not their fault.

The goal is to tell the truth in such a way that children are able to understand and prepare themselves for the changes that will happen.

How do we handle all the changes?

It’s important to know that when someone becomes very ill, the person and their loved ones may feel angry, sad, or afraid. This may be noticed when the patient is feeling sick and can’t carry on with his or her usual responsibilities and roles. The other parent may be exhausted and may not be as aware of the children’s needs. Some kids react to this by withdrawing or being afraid they’ll burden their parent with their own worries. Others may actively misbehave as a way getting attention. Whether the behavior is a reaction to the cancer diagnosis or something else, you still need to address it. It’s easy to understand that a child may be upset about what’s going on, but basic rules of behavior should still apply. It’s important to try to keep routines as much the same as possible, and to be consistent with the children. Keeping the same rules makes children feel safe. They may feel things are even more out of control if they find they can suddenly “get away with anything.”

Children usually have a tough time finding the words for what they feel when a parent is being treated for cancer. Anger is hard for most people to talk about. But it’s a normal emotion when life seems turned upside down. In general, the more honest family members can be with one another, the better. Talking about how you feel is one of the best ways to diffuse the tension that your loved ones are feeling. If you find that you don’t have as much time for your kids as you might like, think about asking another person, maybe your spouse or another trusted relative or friend, to spend time with your children. Try to talk about treatment in a positive way if possible, rather than dwelling on the distressing side effects. Be sure your children know that you are still the same person inside—even if you are bald, or tired, or sleep more—and that you love them just as much as you ever have.

How can I tell if my child knows enough about my cancer treatment?

Young children need less information than older kids. They are also more likely to be confused by the information they’re given. They may be able to repeat back to you what you told them but still not understand it. One mother who talked about surgery for “cancerous tissue” in her lung reported that her children thought she had Kleenex® in her body. You and other caregivers can use play and art to help the child understand what’s happening. It will also help to give the child some time each day to ask questions, such as at bedtime or during breakfast. You may need to repeat explanations many times before the child begins to understand.

Children, especially those under age 12 or so, may feel guilty and be afraid that they somehow caused the cancer. This is because of the way children think before their thought processes mature. They should be assured that nothing they thought, wished, said, or did (or didn’t do) caused their parent’s cancer or the side effects of the cancer treatment. You may have to explain this more than once, especially to younger children.

Children often don’t understand the severe tiredness (fatigue) that’s a common side effect of treatment. They may expect that mom or dad will bounce right back after the last treatment. In reality, this profound fatigue may go on for many months. It’s a good idea to explain that cancer treatment and side effects may last for a while, especially during and after periods of active treatment when drugs and/or radiation therapy will be given. There may not be new information to report, but assure your children that you’ll tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it. Any time you talk with your children about your cancer, always ask them if they have questions or if there’s anything else they want to know.

Children also learn about cancer from other sources—from school, television, the Internet, classmates, and from listening to other people talk. Some of this information is correct but a lot of it is not. It’s best if the child can sift through the information with their parents. Ask your children to tell you what they have heard about cancer so you can correct any wrong information they have. Tell them that everyone responds to cancer treatment in their own way, so sometimes it really doesn’t help to compare one person’s cancer or treatment to another’s.

There are also certain myths about cancer and its treatment that your children may hear. Some examples are: “all people die from cancer,” “cancer is contagious,” “exposing cancer to the air during surgery makes it spread,” and “radiation treatment makes people radioactive.” None of these statements is true, but there are people who strongly believe them. If your child can’t talk openly with you about cancer, he or she may worry about these myths for no real reason. If your child wants to know more about cancer, please see the “To learn more” section. You’ll find toll-free numbers there to call for the most up-to-date information.


Last Medical Review: 08/07/2012
Last Revised: 08/07/2012