Mahesh Memorial Trust

Talking to your child about cancer

Learning that your child has cancer is perhaps the hardest news you would ever have had to face. As a parent, you must now decide how to tell your child.

The questions that many parents ask are: "What should my child be told?" "Who should tell my child?" and "When should my child be told?"

You probably already are asking, "Should I tell my child about the cancer at all?' In the past, children were often shielded from the diagnosis. But, studies show that most children know they have a serious illness despite attempts of parents and health care workers to protect them.

Most likely, your child already suspects that something is wrong. He or she may not feel well, is seeing the doctor more often, and has some uncomfortable and frightening tests. Your child may also sense the anxiety and fears of family members and close friends.

Children who are not told about their illness often depend on their imagination and fears to explain their symptoms. Many children with cancer believe their illness is punishment for something they have done; as a result, they may feel unnecessary anxiety and guilt. The truth also increases a child's cooperation with treatment. In addition, talking about cancer often helps bring the family closer together and makes dealing with illness a little easier for everyone.

Who should tell my child?
The answer to this question is personal. It depends on the relationship you have with your child and on your child, or you may want your child's doctor to help explain the illness. Either way, you or someone close to your child should offer support, encouragement, and love.

If you choose to tell your child yourself, talking to others might help you decide what to say. Health professionals such as your child's doctor, nurse, or social worker can offer ideas. Talk with parents of other children with cancer. Thinking about what you want to say, talking it over someone close to you will help you feel more at ease.

When should my child be told?
Because you are the best judge of your child's personality and moods, you are probably the best person to decide when your child should be told about the illness. There is no "right" moment to tell a child he or she has cancer. Try to choose a quiet time and place where you and your child can be alone. This will create a calm and supportive atmosphere. It is probably best to talk with your child soon after diagnosis. Waiting days or weeks gives children more time to use their imagination and develop fears that may be hard to get rid of later.

What should my child be told?
Before you speak with your child, you need to understand the type of cancer he or she has and the treatment that will be given. This way, you will be prepared for questions. Your child will feel more secure if you can provide the correct information.

The amount of information and the way it should be told depend on the child's age and intellectual maturity. As a rule, a gentle, open, and honest approach is best.