How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Cancer Diagnosis

When you're diagnosed with cancer, processing it is hard, and figuring out how to tell your kids about it just adds to the stress and sadness. While there's no way around it being a difficult situation, there are steps you can take that will help make the conversation a bit easier.

We spoke to therapists who specialize in helping families who are dealing with cancer, as well as a two-time cancer survivor and mother, and gathered their best insights to help guide you through. The most important thing, they all agree, is ensuring everyone involved (including you!) feels loved and supported.

And don't be hard on yourself. Remember: There's no right or wrong way to break the news. Read on for more of their best suggestions.


First, make sure you're in the right headspace.

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"You cannot support your children through [your] cancer diagnosis if you do not take care of yourself," says Nell Shanahan, LCSW, a member of the Ackerman Institute's Center for Families and Health.

"It is very important that parents recognize and work on their own emotional reactions to a cancer diagnosis before speaking with their children about it," agrees Marilia G. Neves, PsyD., who works with families affected by breast cancer at the Dubin Breast Center of the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital."Doing so allows parents to process their own fears, thoughts, and feelings about cancer, so these do not transpire in conversations with their children."


Be honest.

"All research suggests that honest and open communication by parents is the single most important thing that supports children in doing well when a parent has cancer," Dr. Neves says. In other words, don't tell your kids that mom just has a bad cold when she really has ovarian cancer.

By working through the news with your kiddos openly and honestly in a way that feels appropriate, you're doing everyone a service.


Meet your kids where they are.

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How you set up the news and how you explain it to your children should largely depend on their age and emotional maturity, as well as how they're able to process scary or stressful information, explains Shanahan. "Pre-school and school-age children benefit from explanations that are brief, simple, and direct. They also do best when communication is about the immediate future."

For adolescent children, consider asking how much he or she wants to know. "Some adolescents may want to know everything, and some don't. Parents should respect their adolescent's communication preferences and let him or her know that they're supportive no matter what he or she decides," Dr. Neves adds.


Avoid over-explaining.

"Ironically, what helps children stay calm and comfortable is speaking less rather than more. Serve as an attentive ear, and in many ways, let them lead," Shanahan suggests. "They may not be ready to know how long dad or mom will be sick, or when he or she will get better, or if he or she will survive this illness."

Again, take it slow and follow your child's cues. You know your son or daughter better than anyone, so trust your instincts and use what you know about them to guide this difficult conversation, Shanahan adds.


Focus on the positive.

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Kris Feher, an attorney, two-time cervical cancer survivor, and mother of two children, agrees with Shanahan's sentiments. "The way we handled the conversations was effective, in that the kids were not frightened more than necessary. We kept the conversation high-level and focused on the positive—which was that the cancer was treatable, and we had a plan. Choosing words carefully can make the difference between a situation that is terrifying for them and one that seems manageable."


Use simple language and be direct.

"During these conversations, it is incredibly important to use words that children can understand," Shanahan says. "Words like diagnosis and prognosis can be really confusing." Instead, use simple and elementary language.

Remember: Keeping it simple doesn't mean leaving out key details. Doing so may just prolong their understanding of the truth.

"What was not effective was my first effort at explaining the diagnosis to my daughter," recalls Feher. "I was not direct enough. I started by explaining that the doctors had figured out why I had blood clots and had found a mass that I needed to have removed. I didn't use the words 'cancer' or 'tumor.' She took the news so well that I eventually realized she thought we were talking about an orthopedic problem, and I had to reopen the conversation and be more direct."


Nurture their emotional side.

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Remember that your kids are likely to need help understanding their emotions just as much as the science of what's happening in regards to your health—and it can help to recognize and admit to your children that you have those emotions, too.

"I always recommend parents not only validate what the child is feeling, but also relay that they, too, are confused, sad, and even mad about what is happening or what has happened," Shanahan says. "The more the child feels that they are not alone in experiencing these feelings, the more likely they are to feel safe and understood."


Be open.

Your presence as a parent will be most meaningful of all, Shanahan says. Make sure your children know they can talk to you about whatever they're feeling in a space that's comforting and accepting.

Dr. Neves agrees, and adds that children who are encouraged to express their feelings are less likely to turn to Dr. Google and more apt to come directly to their parents as a source of information. "Conversations about cancer help children understand what is going on and makes them feel safe and secure," Dr. Neves notes.


Remind them how much support they have.

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The more support your child feels from trusted figures and loved ones, the better, explains Dr. Neves. Feher agrees, saying that in her experience, having a secondary support figure was key. "My husband David and I each spoke with our kids separately, so that they could hear straight from me that I was doing okay, but also ask him questions they might not want to pose to me."

Keep in mind that support doesn't end in the home. Dr. Neves recommends informing your child's school about your illness and asking your child who they'd like to confide in if he or she becomes distressed in the classroom.


Let them get involved.

Your children are a part of your support system, and it's in everybody's best interest to let them feel that way, Feher says. "Your instinct is to protect your kids, which may translate to keeping them at a distance from your diagnosis and treatment. But I think it can be helpful for them to feel involved and that they are doing something to help you."

"One of the worst things about cancer for family members is the feeling of helplessness," adds Feher. "Letting your kids get involved in some way in supporting you or supporting the cause helps them feel like they are doing something to help you fight. And that's good for everybody."


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