What do children need to know about the cancer treatment?

Children need to know enough to be prepared for what’s about to happen to their parent and how it will affect them. It’s important to explain cancer and its treatment in words that a child can understand.

Young children (ages 2 to 8) don’t usually need a lot of detailed information about cancer and treatment, but older children (ages 9 and up) need and deserve to know more. Kids of all ages need to know these basics:

  • The type of cancer (for example, colon cancer or lymphoma)
  • Where the cancer is in the body
  • What will happen with treatment
  • How treatment might change how the parent looks and feels
  • 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.”

How much should I tell them?

Exactly what you tell your children depends on many things, like their ages, personalities, and what you know about your treatment. You need to find the right balance between too much information, which could overwhelm the child, and too little information, which might raise more questions. The goal is to tell the truth in such a way that children are able to understand and prepare themselves for the changes that will happen.

After talking about what cancer is and where it’s located, children should be told how it might affect you and them. This discussion should include how their lives might change as a result of your treatment, and what plans you’ve made to be sure that they are cared for no matter what happens. Telling children in little chunks of information at a time is better than trying to explain everything at once. It also helps to try to share some of the information informally, such as, “by the way…” or “today my doctor told me…”

If you’re going to lose your hair, tell your kids so they won’t be afraid when it happens. If you’ll be in the hospital, children need to know for how long, what’s going to happen while you’re there, whether they can visit, video chat, or at least call, and who will take care of them.

You may be anxious and uncomfortable during cancer treatment. Children should be told that it’s not their fault that Mom or Dad might be a bit grouchy or irritable.

People sometimes talk about cancer and its treatment as if all cancers are the same for everyone. But that’s not the case. Different types of cancer act differently in the body and require different treatments. And people respond differently to the same treatment. Make sure your children understand this.

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: January 29, 2015 Last Revised: April 27, 2015

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