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.

When talking to 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.

Right now, there’s no way to know 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.

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 possible 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 their children is their desire to tell them 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.

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.

Last Revised: December 20, 2016

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