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When cancer comes back after treatment and after a period when the cancer couldn’t be detected or found, it is called recurrence. Learning that the cancer is back can be overwhelming. It can make a person feel sadness, grief, upset, or that their future is uncertain.
Explaining cancer recurrence to children can be overwhelming, especially when you are their parent and you have cancer, it might help to process your feelings first and talk to your cancer care team as you think about letting the children know about the recurrence. You could also reach out to your support system to help you talk to your children.
Some people might not want to tell their children that the cancer is back out of fear that this will upset the child or cause them to worry more. Even though it is true that children are likely to be upset when they learn the cancer has come back, keeping them informed of what is going on might help them worry less and build trust.
Here are some things to consider before or when telling children that a loved one’s cancer is back:
When thinking about helping children cope with this news, remember:
Some children might have more trouble than others coping with the news that a loved one has cancer. Extra help, most times professional help, might be needed if a child:
You might find it useful to talk with the child’s health care team, school counselor, a child psychologist or psychiatrist, or social worker or counseling staff at the hospital where the loved one is being treated. Get help immediately if a child admits to thinking of suicide or hurting themselves.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Cancer.Net. How A Child Understands Cancer. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/talking-with-family-and-friends/how-child-understands-cancer on May 17, 2022.
Cancer.Net. How Cancer Affects Family Life. 2018. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/talking-with-family-and-friends/how-cancer-affects-family-activities on May 19, 2022.
Faccio F, Ferrari F, Pravettoni G. When a parent has cancer: How does it impact on children's psychosocial functioning? A systematic review. Eur J Cancer Care (Engl). 2018; 27(6)
Hauken MA, Senneseth M, Dyregrov A, Dyregrov K. Anxiety, and the quality of life of children living with parental cancer. Cancer Nursing. 2018; 41(1): 19-27
National Cancer Institute. Recurrent Cancer: When Cancer Comes Back. 2010. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/recurrent-cancer on May 17, 2022.
National Cancer Institute. When your parent has cancer: A guide for teens. National Institute of Health. 2012; 12-5734: 54-55
Ojai C, Edbom T, Mansson J, Ekblad S. Informing children of their parent’s illness: A systematic review of intervention programs with child outcomes in all health care settings globally from inception to 2019. PLoS ONE. 2020; 15(5): 2.
The British Psychological Society. Talking to Children About Illness. 2020. Accessed at https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/Policy/Policy-illness.pdf on May 17, 2022.
SannShah BK, Armaly J, Swieter E. impact of parental cancer on children. Anticancer Research. 2017; 37(8): 4025-4028.
Last Revised: September 15, 2022
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