how to tell a child about terminal cancer

One of the most painful moments after your cancer diagnosis is having to share this news with your close family members, especially your children.

A lot of people who have been diagnosed with cancer have children of their own, or children in their families such as nephews, nieces or even their grandchildren. The most common fear most adults have is that they will scare the child by talking about the illness. Some are afraid that their child might feel that they are responsible for it or that they might feel overly burdened by this news.

Cancer is a serious illness and the fact that it can be life threatening is not easy to explain without overwhelming the listener. You need to be careful on how to talk to children about cancer. However, depending on the child’s age, you might be able to create awareness about the disease. Compared to a 5-year-old, a 10-year old child will have a greater understanding about the gravity of the situation.

Kids Talk

However, there are some facts that a child must know:

  1. What the cancer is called, i.e. which part of the body is affected.

  2. How it will be treated.

  3. How it will affect family life.

How to Explain Cancer to A 5-Year Old?

Kids at this age have a general understanding of simple ailments like a cough or cold. So, you may not know how to talk to children about your cancer. It is important to be prepared for any questions they may ask you. Parents fear disclosing their illness to their children, but usually children can sense a change in their parent through their body language and changes in their routine.  

One way in which cancer can be explained to the child is by telling them that the body is made up of different parts and when a person has cancer, it means that one of the parts has stopped functioning like it used to. You can also tell them about how ‘bad cells’ have started to develop in that part of the body, which has formed a lump or a tumour. It is also a good idea to inform their school so that their teacher can provide necessary emotional support and be more understanding about behavioural changes that might be quite normal as the child copes with this news..

Many adults worry that while talking to their child about cancer, he or she might feel that they have caused it. They understand that they are the centre of their parents’ lives and might start feeling that they did something to make it happen.

However, through repeated reassurance these doubts must be put to rest and the child must be reminded that his life and routine will not change and that their parents love and affection for them remains constant.

Talk About Changes in Your Physical Appearance

Children below 10 years of age must be made aware of two physical changes they might witness in you. First, they must be told that you will be physically weak for few days and may not be able to do all routine stuff including ‘Dangaa Masti’ with them or may not be able to go to office for a few days. You must orient them beforehand otherwise they might get worried seeing you home suddenly for so long.

Second, your bald look. Even if you might be extremely OK with carrying a bald look, your children would certainly get worried and at times scared seeing you that way. The feeling of something being wrong with their dear Mom, can give them a strong trauma. It is our strong recommendation for mothers having very small kids to wear wigs during their treatment.

How to Explain Cancer to A 10-Year Old?

A 10-year-old will have more questions about a cancer diagnosis and what that means than a 5-year old because he/she is older and understands illness better. Talking to children who are in this older age group about cancer requires the parent or adult to be prepared for a lot of questions. Some of them can be unnerving as well. However, sound communication will help your family cope with the challenges that lie ahead. So, it might be a good idea to take professional advice on how to approach the child.

Start by setting the right tone while talking to them. They need to be assured that all forms of cancer are not terminal, and if your cancer can be cured, then that must be conveyed to them right at the beginning of the conversation. They must also be told that cancer, unlike a flu, doesn’t spread, so they can come in contact with you and you can still hug and cuddle them. The child needs to be told that the adult is being given the best treatment and is under very good doctors.

A book explaining diagnosis, treatment, and side effects of cancer can also help the child understand. Finally, they should be made aware of any physical changes you expect to go through during treatment.

How do we Tell a Child About Terminal Cancer?

In case of terminal cancer, it is advised that you inform and prepare the child well in advance. It is important that children are allowed to express their grief or concerns of knowing about their loved one’s disease. In most cases, they should also be prepared to visit the hospital and see their close family members looking so unwell. Since most children struggle with directly expressing their grief, their changed behaviour patterns can be a way of showing how upset they are.

Naturally children feel especially fragile at this time, so the adults in the family need to make sure that there is always someone available to provide reassurance, answer questions and express love and comfort to the child.

It is always important to keep reiterating the following messages to your child:

  1. He or she has not been the cause of your cancer.

  2. Cancer is not contagious, and it is all right to hug or kiss you.

  3. The family is together in this battle and that everyone will overcome it.

  4. They are always going to be loved and cared for, no matter what.

  5. They can ask you or other caregiving adults any questions and share their concerns.

If you feel you need external support, let your child know that he/she has other options like meeting a therapist or counsellor at school or outside, where they can fully express and explore the complex emotions that they will experience over the course of your treatment.