What, how, and when you tell your children about your cancer
will depend on their ages and maturity, as well as your preferences
and style. Certain facts about your illness will be important to
share with all your children, regardless of their ages.
Use your judgment as to how and when you bring up these points.
You might find it easier to take on one or two items at a
time, and come back to the discussion later. Try to remember that
you don't have to discuss everything at once, and that you will
likely return to these conversations from time to time. As usual,
try to follow your children's lead in this and other discussions.
They'll usually let you know when they've had enough or need
Most children, especially younger
ones, worry about this, and may even avoid being near you. After all,
many of the sicknesses they know about, such as colds and chicken pox,
can be passed from one person to another. But cancer cannot. This is one
thing you can tell your family for certain.
your children may have heard that certain cancers have
a tendency to "run in the family." If they ask about this, or if
you have questions or concerns of your own, discuss them with your
treatment team. Your doctors and other health care professionals are in
the best position
to talk to you about the risk that your children will develop cancer in
the future, and to help you figure out how to respond to this type of
You might begin by asking your children how they think cancer
gets started. Children often believe that people get sick as a punishment. Or your children may worry that the stress
of being a parent caused you to develop cancer. You can reassure
them that there is no evidence that stress or bad behavior causes
Explain that cancer can happen to anyone, whether they have
been good or bad, relaxed or stressed out. The disease happens
because something goes wrong in the body, not because the person
misbehaved or said something hurtful. While certain activities,
such as smoking or spending lots of time in the sun, can increase
the risk of getting cancer over a long period of time, this is very
different from being punished for yelling or acting badly.
While children under eight years old are more likely to believe
that they could have caused your illness, children of all ages may
occasionally worry that they did something to bring on your
Even if they never mention
this, consider reassuring them that they had nothing to do with the
cancer. You might say, for example, "This is not your fault. Cancer
is a complicated disease, and it usually happens because of things that
we cannot control." Add that your children can't cause cancer in other
people by having angry thoughts or feelings toward them
children are not sure what they should and shouldn't say about your
cancer outside the home. Decide if you are comfortable having your
children share this
news with teachers, friends, coaches, neighbors, or other
extended family members. Also, think about how much information you
would like your children to share. Let them know they have your
talk to others if they choose. If they indicate that they would
like to, help them identify people they might want to talk to, and what
they might want to say.
If you have confided in friends or relatives, let your children
know whom you have talked to, and what you have said. This may help
your children realize that they don't have to face this or any
other difficulty alone, and may make it easier for them to bring up
the cancer with others outside the family. Your children also will
be better prepared if someone mentions something to them about your
We know a lot more about cancer and its treatment today than
ever before. We also have much better ways to tell when someone has
cancer, and start their treatment when the disease is
just beginning. And scientists are coming up with new treatments
all the time. As a result, more than eight million Americans are
now living with a cancer diagnosis, often for many years.
Lots of children have parents who are living with cancer, or who have had
cancer. Many people who have been diagnosed look and act just like
everyone else, so your children may not even know that their
friends have gone through this, too.
If your child responds in this way, assure him or her that you
are not dying now, and that you hope to live a very long time. It
is helpful to let them know that you will give them updates on how
you are doing, and that you want them to ask questions and share
It's completely normal and understandable if you're
occasionally irritable or impatient with your family. However, your
shifting feelings may confuse your children, who may worry that
they have done something to cause your bad mood. If you find
yourself becoming more easily annoyed, reassure family members that
they have done nothing wrong, but that you are not feeling well or
are stressed. Ask for their understanding, and tell them that you
hope you will feel better soon.
Most people appreciate the chance to help out in times of
trouble. Your children are no exception. They may feel powerless
and frustrated that they cannot take away your cancer.
Offer them the opportunity to help by doing housework or fetching your medicine. Older children may be able
to run errands for you or baby-sit younger siblings. Your children
also can provide moral support by keeping you company, giving you
hugs, and offering words of encouragement. Sometimes even the
routine, everyday things that you usually do together are
comforting (folding laundry, brushing the dog, watching
a favorite TV program).
Try to accept this common reaction, and let them know that you
understand that the cancer is an extra burden for them, too.
Many children will react to your illness based
on how it affects their daily lives. While this may seem
self-centered, it is entirely normal. From your children's point of
view, you are there to take care of them and manage their lives.
Cancer treatment disrupts this process and changes the family's
routines, schedules and activities.
As a rule, children and adults usually don't like change. But
cancer brings change in many forms. Your home may be filled
with extra people helping out. You may not be as emotionally
available to your children. You may not be able to give them
a bath, drive them to soccer games, or help them with their homework.
When possible, describe what will happen instead, and when you
might be able to return to your usual routines. ("For the next four
weeks, Jason's dad will drive you to and from your games. If
everything goes well, then I may be able to take over again.") When
children know what to expect, they often feel less resentful and
When given support and information, most children adapt well to
a parent's having cancer. However, like you, they may at times
feel sad, worried, or even mad about what is happening. So when
your 4-year-old cuts the telephone cord because you are talking
to your doctor instead of to her, or refuses to go to bed because
she doesn't want to leave you, remind yourself that she cares about
you and may be worried about your health. She also may be upset or
mad because her regular routine is disrupted, or because she has
less of your attention than normal.
Try to understand why your children may be upset or behaving
badly, and let them know that you realize this is a challenging
time for them, too. Find some time to provide extra comfort when
Children find comfort in established routines and
limits, so maintaining regular household rules and
responsibilities can be helpful. It provides valuable structure to
them when they see that as parents you are still in charge and will
continue to manage the family needs.
For instance, when your son refuses to take out the garbage,
think about what else has been going on lately. Did you mention to
your son that you have not been feeling well lately? Did he have a
fight with his best friend, or get cut from the varsity team?
If you ask your son what's wrong and he responds, stop
whatever else you are doing and pay attention. Let him
determine the pace and direction of the conversation. Your
discussion puts you in a better position to decide what to do about
the garbage. Maybe you will insist that your son complete his
chores. Or this may be a time when you say instead, "Sometimes we
all need a break. Forget about the garbage for now. It will still
be there tomorrow and you can take care of it then."
But what if your son denies that anything is wrong, and refuses
to talk with you? Use your best judgment and instincts to decide
what to do. If your son consistently avoids chores and
responsibilities, you might choose to discuss this with him
directly. If this is your son's first offense, you might choose to
let it go, perhaps with a comment such as, "Sometimes I don't feel
like doing the things I need to do either. Don't worry about it
Your children may worry about leaving the house to go to school
or participate in sports or social activities. They may feel
they should stay home to take care of you. Try to find ways to let
them know that they are not responsible for you; that it is
important that they continue to maintain their normal routines, and
that you have lots of other people to lend a hand. You might also
thank them for the many ways they already help out.
Remind your older children that they have their own lives and priorities. Reassure them that you
don't want them to give up friends and activities they enjoy
because you are ill. You might even explain that when your
daughters and sons focus on their schoolwork, their activities, and
their friends, they are giving you the best possible support: the
reassurance that they are living their lives as normally and as
happily as possible.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 450 Brookline Avenue, Boston, MA 02215 | Call us toll-free:
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