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Talking to Children About Cancer

Father talking to son

Tips for talking to children about cancer

  • Plan what you will say ahead of time
  • Remember that you set the tone
  • It is OK to cry or be emotional in front of children
  • Hiding emotions can cause children to worry more
  • Speak to your child at a calm time when you are not upset
  • Reassure children that they will be cared for
  • Assure your children that they can ask any question any time
  • Be honest and open with your feelings about the diagnosis
  • Work with your child to make a list of who they go to for support. This can be parents, friends, a teacher or school counselor. Make sure your child is comfortable with who is on the list.

Rogel Cancer Center program helps children be part of the conversation

Cancer can be an uncertain time for families, but one thing that’s clear is communication with children is essential when a parent or loved one is ill.

Families Facing Cancer is a program at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center that provides parents with information on how to talk to children of all ages about a cancer diagnosis. Children can sense changes in the family routine and if their parents are worried or upset.

It is always better to speak to a child soon after receiving a diagnosis rather than waiting.

"Depending on their developmental level, a child might think the cancer is their fault or that cancer is contagious," says Madison McTevia, a child life specialist at the Rogel Cancer Center. "It is important to talk to your children in language they understand and make sure they know who to go to with questions."

Communicating honestly about cancer builds trust and increases the likelihood your child will come to you with questions or concerns.

McTevia provides support and resources to any adult who needs guidance on how to talk to a child about cancer, such as a parent, grandparent, loved one, teacher or family friend. Resources include:

  • One-on-one consultation based on your family situation
  • Developmentally based language and suggestions for speaking with kids
  • Information on parenting while ill
  • Interactive projects such as the "Hand in Hand" bead program for families
  • Family tours as needed for managing a loved one’s treatment

Families Facing Cancer aligns with many community partners, agencies and state-of-the-art research to guide our work with patients and their families. The program is entirely funded by philanthropy. If you'd like to donate to this program, you can use our online donation form.

Continue reading the Spring, 2018 issue of Thrive.

Learn more about talking to children about cancer


Thrive Issue: 
Spring, 2018