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

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

Explaining cancer treatment to children can be tough. The parent already feels anxious enough without worrying about how their child will react to their treatment, too. A lot of progress is being made in cancer treatment, but the person with cancer’s first response is usually fear and uncertainty about the future. This is normal.

Years ago, people often tried to keep a cancer diagnosis a secret, which only made coping with the illness harder for them, their family, and their friends. Today, we know it’s impossible to keep a cancer diagnosis a secret for long. We also know that trying to keep such a secret only harms you and those you love. The challenge is fitting cancer and its treatment into a family’s everyday life. This includes helping children deal with the major disruption it causes. If you need to know more about how to explain a cancer diagnosis to children, see Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis. You can read it on our Web site, cancer.org, or call us at 800-227-2345 to get a copy.

This is one of six documents covering topics to help children when someone in the family has cancer. The others cover information on: diagnosis, recurrence or progressive illness, terminal illness, losing a parent and psychosocial support services. For more information on these and other topics, go to the “To learn more” section.

If the person with cancer is a child or teen, you may want to read Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis. You can find it online at www.cancer.org or call us for a copy.

Why tell children about the cancer treatment?

Children sense problems and imagine the worst.

Children will often imagine the worst if they are not told what is going on. They see a tired parent who may have less patience with them and who feels sick a lot, and may think that the parent doesn’t love them or that they’ve caused the parent’s illness. Even very young children will sense that something is wrong. In this situation, children are very aware of the emotional state of both parents. And once children have come up with their own explanation about why something is happening, it can be very hard to change their minds.

Children are likely to find out anyway.

You probably know that children often hear adults talking about subjects not meant for them—even when the child is busy and doesn’t seem to be listening. If they think something is being kept from them, some kids will even look for ways to listen without being noticed. When children overhear these conversations, it confirms that adults are keeping things from them. Even if they don’t hear anything, they can see that others are acting strange. Children usually sense that people are upset and something is wrong. They might even think that something they’ve done or not done caused the problem.

Side effects will be obvious once treatment begins.

When the parent’s treatment starts, the child may see side effects like tiredness, weight changes, hair loss, or vomiting, and believe any number of things. They see that the parent is sick and may think that he or she is going to die. They may think that others in the family will get sick, too. Not knowing what is going on or how to cope with it can be terrifying to a child.

It takes energy to keep secrets.

Finally, the effort it takes to keep such secrets may rob the parent of precious energy. This energy can be put to better use by making children feel safe and prepared for the changes that will happen in the family. Parents need to explain cancer and its treatment in words that a child can understand.

If the adults don’t bring it up, the children may assume that they are not allowed to talk about it, and come up with their own reasons no one has told them. To avoid this, children need to be told ahead of time about the kinds of side effects that are likely during cancer treatment.

What do children need to know about a parent’s treatment?

Children need to know enough to be prepared for what’s about to happen to their parent and how it will affect them. Young children (ages 2 to 8) do not usually need a lot of detailed information about cancer and treatment, but older children (ages 9 to 12 and teens) need and deserve to know more. Kids of all ages need to know the basics about:

    • The type of cancer (for example, breast cancer or lymphoma)

    • Where the cancer is in the body

    • What will happen with treatment

    • How their lives are expected to be changed by the cancer and its treatment

If the children have not been told these facts, this should be the first priority. (See Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis to learn more about talking to children at the time of diagnosis. You can find out more about opening communication channels so that you have a way to talk with the children and hear their concerns, both during and after cancer treatment.)

Children need to understand some basic cancer terms. We have defined some of the more common words in the section called “Words to describe cancer and its treatment.”


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