Why Tell Children That a Parent Has Cancer?

Some parents are afraid their children will worry more if they are told the facts about what’s happening. But parents and children have very different life experiences. This makes it unlikely that a child will react to a problem the same way an adult would.

It is impossible to keep cancer a secret. Children often know when secrets are being kept, even if they don’t overhear anything. They can see that others are acting differently and usually sense that something is wrong. If they think something is being kept from them, some kids will even look for ways to listen without being noticed. When they overhear these conversations, they often pick up on the anxiety and worry of their parents. Kids tend to be afraid and believe the worst if they haven’t been given complete information. In addition, the effort it takes to keep such secrets may rob the parent of precious energy.

If children hear about their parent’s cancer from someone else, like a curious neighbor or a classmate, it can destroy the trust that parents have worked to build. If children think their parents are being vague on purpose or are trying to hide something from them, they might find it hard to know when they are being told the truth. It’s better that parents learn how to share this information truthfully and in a way that allows the child to understand and take part in the discussion.

Another problem in keeping cancer a secret is that the child may assume that whatever is happening is too terrible to talk about. This might make them feel isolated or shut out from the family, because no one will talk about their biggest concern.

Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) said, "Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone."

This means that the natural desire parents have to protect their kids sometimes only makes things harder for the child. Parents know that it’s impossible to shield children from all of the stressful parts of life, and part of their job is to teach their children how to manage these challenges.

Cancer is also an extremely difficult secret to keep for obvious reasons. Once treatment starts, the child may see side effects like tiredness, weight changes, hair loss, or vomiting. Watching a parent’s physical changes can be very scary for a child.

  • They see that the parent is sick, and might assume that the parent is going to die.
  • They may think that others in the family will get the same illness or the child might fear they will catch the illness.
  • They may think that life as they know it will end.

Not knowing what’s happening or how to cope with it can be terrifying to a child. To avoid this, children need to be told about the illness. They should know in advance the kinds of side effects that cancer treatment might cause and the ways their daily lives may change.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: July 20, 2016 Last Revised: December 20, 2016

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