How to Tell Your Children You Were Diagnosed With Cancer

WhatNexters with children in their family have felt anxiety, fear, confusion and helplessness around how their children or teenagers might process their cancer.

Many WhatNexters recommend reading the American Cancer Society’s Guide to Helping Children When a Family Member has Cancer.

Talking to children

This guide explains how children may react to a parent’s diagnosis and why children need to be told when a parent has cancer. It says that it is helpful for the child to know that it’s not their fault, that no one can “catch” cancer, that the family will work together to cope, and that no matter what happens they are loved and will be taken care of. The guide also provides insight on how to help a child when dealing with treatment and recurrence, dealing with a parent’s terminal illness, losing a parent to cancer, and understanding psychological support services.

Related Article: How to Tell Family and Friends You Were Diagnosed With Cancer

If you are having anxiety about telling your kids, some WhatNexters say that it may not turn out to be as scary as you think. Cancer can be a very hard secret to keep. To avoid scaring a child by keeping them in the dark, it is important to be honest with them.

Children have a way of pulling us through the worst of times. We cling to their innocence and simplistic view of the world. As adults we sometimes think about situations and go into that panic mode. They see situations in a tighter perspective without the drama.” -- carm thumbnail carm

One WhatNexter, HearMeRoar, was anticipating telling her children and asked others how her children might react. Her goal was to deliver the news as positively as possible.

“I’m telling my 8 and 10-year-old today. I’m only telling them I have cancer and will have surgery and that their Grammy is coming for 3 weeks. Then I'll point out all the beautiful, healthy long-term survivors in their lives…”

After she told her kids about her cancer she shared,

“I told the kids tonight. Thanks for everyone's advice. My oldest cried and hugged hard. My youngest grabbed duct tape [sic] and made me pretty flowers. My oldest calmed down and then said he wished I were a shark because sharks don't get cancer! That's my new symbol - a shark. We are all sharks - graceful, strong, and scary! Team Shark all the way!” -- HearMeRoar, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, Stage IIA

A lot of WhatNexters have felt relief after they have told their children. Below are some other tips that WhatNexters have shared from their experience with telling their own children.

  • When you are ready, be honest and encourage them to ask questions. -- gwendolyn thumbnail gwendolyn, Breast Cancer
  • Relay it to them at their level of knowledge with an emphasis on day-to-day practical concerns. -- smt4 thumbnail SMT4, Thyroid Cancer, Stage III
  • Focus on the positive and that the doctors are doing their best to make you better. -- HeidiJo, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Stage II
  • You know your kids well and know what they can handle. -- lirasgirl33 Lirasgirl33, Cervical Cancer, Stage IV
  • Use simple children’s books or other resources that help tell kids about cancer. Ticklingcancer used a book called ‘Kemo Shark’. Other books are ‘The Year My Mother was Bald’ and ‘Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings: When Someone You Love has Cancer’.

The American Cancer Society has many books to help your children deal with cancer. There are books appropriate for a range of ages. ‘Because...Someone I Love Has Cancer’ is an activity book with creative exercises to help kids between the ages of 6 and 12 who have a loved one with cancer.

If you are looking for extra support as you prepare to tell your own child, do not hesitate to reach out other WhatNexters who have already gone through the process of telling their children. Or you can call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for more helpful information.

Related Guides - See all Guides

Newly Diagnosed 3 Talking to family 3 Talking to children 2

It's Cancer, What Next?

Telling Family and Friends

Telling Your Children

    • junebug0720's Avatar

      How do I tell my son? He is 18 and in his senior year in high school. Jordan is very sensitive and takes everything to heart. He graduates in June and his grades are excellent. I'm so afraid this is going to throw him into an emotional tailspin that he will not recover from. My husband and i said maybe we should wait until treatments start. I have no idea what to do.

      almost 7 years ago
    • LeslieD's Avatar

      When I felt ready, I told my 35 yr old son. He was the last to know as he doesn't handle sickness well at all! He went crazy when I was admitted for my triple by-pass. My mom told me that he cried uncontrollably and wanted to know if I was going to die! However being older, he really didn't say anything, but " Oh, mom that sucks!" So, I really don't know how he is handling it! Of course, he is older now and has a beautiful 6yr old. I left it up to him if and when he wanted to tell his son? Should I be concerned??

      over 4 years ago
    • tc21hi's Avatar

      My two adult daughters and I have been estranged for many years. They won't tell me what the issues are, and they won't respond to any of my attempts to get in touch with them. I was able to find an email for one of my daughters who is a research assistant working on her Doctorate at George Washington University in Washington D.C., so I know they both got the information about my cancer. That was back in September 2016. Neither one of them responded so I guess they just don't care whether I live or die. Of course, it hurts and doesn't help my decision as to what I want to do. As I said before, I really have no support system. Except for my children, my loved one's have gone before me.

      almost 4 years ago