What about the “why” questions?

Both adults and children deal with the question “why?” at diagnosis, during treatment, and especially if there is a recurrence. This question becomes more intense the more serious the situation is.

Why me?

For some people, looking for an answer to the “why” question can cause many sleepless nights and incredible soul searching. Others find that it doesn’t really matter why something has happened – how to best deal with it is more important. Many people think that if they knew why something has happened – and then can start or stop doing something – somehow the situation will change. While this isn’t usually rational, it helps to understand the way people think. We all look for reasons for what happens in our lives. It’s hard to accept that cancer can be a random event and that there may be no answer to why one person develops cancer and another one doesn’t. Many things can influence the development of cancer – these can be genetic, environmental, or related to something a person did. Most people never know why they have cancer, so trying to find the answer to this question often leads to frustration, sadness, or anger.

It’s OK to tell your child that this is the kind of question that doesn’t help right now. You can explain that, rather than look for an answer that you probably will never find, you’d rather spend your time and energy trying to get better and enjoying time with them.

The bottom line in answering the “why” question is that knowing the answer to the question will not change what happens next. Worrying about “why” can drain people of energy that would be better used in other ways. Consider getting some counseling if you find yourself unable to move beyond this question.

Was it something I did?

For some people, the answer to the “why” question might relate to something they did, such as smoking, tanning, or drinking a lot. These people can have a much harder time living with their choices because they feel guilty about doing something that could have caused their cancer. Their job is to forgive themselves. If they can’t let go of the guilt and self-blame, living with the cancer is that much harder. Many times it helps to talk to an oncology social worker or cancer counselor to make peace with these issues.

Children hear and see a lot of information about health and illness – in school, online, on television, and in talking to their peers. Some of this information is accurate but some isn’t. Some of it may be misunderstood by the child telling it or by the listener. Ask your kids to tell you what they know or what they’ve heard about cancer before you talk about it. In most cases, you can honestly say that doctors don’t know why a parent has cancer.

In cases where a person’s behavior may have helped cause the cancer (such as smoking and lung cancer) it’s best to admit that, and express sorrow and regret. Kids may express anger, but this is normal and should be expected. Allow them to vent, get help managing these feelings if needed, and encourage your kids to learn from the mistakes you made.

You should also make it clear that cancer is not contagious – you didn’t catch it from anyone and there’s no risk of anyone else in the family catching it. You may have to say this more than once.

Children should be told that although no one knows for sure why some people get cancer, it’s certain that the child did nothing to cause the family member’s cancer. Make this point often and clearly to your children. Otherwise, children may believe it was something they did or didn’t do that caused the cancer.

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 12, 2014

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