When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, it can be hard on the entire family, especially children.

Child coloring

Don’t think you can protect children by not telling them about the cancer.

Your children will see you are not feeling well and are absent from home for treatment. They also may hear other family members or friends talk about the situation and think the worst.

Because imaginations can run wild, honesty is the best approach. No matter what the age, children should be given general information about the cancer, including where it is located in the body and, in general, how doctors will treat it.

Remember, your child will take cues from how you react while talking about the cancer, so it’s important to try to remain as calm as possible. Allow the child to ask questions and watch how he/she responds to your answers.

Our team has created a guide to help you discuss a cancer diagnosis with children

Plan your conversation.

Before you sit down to talk with children about a cancer diagnosis, first decide: 

o What you will say 

o Where the talk will take place 

o Who will be part of it. This could be siblings, other family, or the health care team. 

Use words that are easy to understand based on your child's age. Start by asking your child what they know about cancer. Ask what they think is going to happen to the person with cancer. Be ready to give honest answers. It is okay not to have all the answers. 

Use the word "cancer" when telling children. Say, "Mommy has cancer and the doctors are helping her feel better" instead of, "Mommy is sick with a mass." 

Children and teens might find out from other people. These could be friends, other family, school, or the Internet. It is vital that they hear it from you first. 

Ask your child to write down questions, worries, or feelings they may have. 


How you talk to your children will depend on how old they are. 

Infants or Toddlers (0-2 years) 

  • What do they know? 

    • See changes in those around them 

    • Aware of changes in routine 

    • Toddlers might notice changes in caregiver looks (like hair loss) 

  • How do they react? 

    • More tantrums

    • Fear of being apart 

    • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns 

    • Wanting more comfort 

    • Clinginess to caregivers 

  • How can you help? 

    • Keep the same routine 

    • Use soothing touch and calming music 

    • Give comfort and physical touch 

Preschool (3-5 years) 

  • What do they know? 

    • Know the basics of sickness (like the cold or flu) 

    • Might think they caused the sickness ("magical thinking") 

    • Might think they can catch cancer 

  • How do they react? 

    • Fear of being away from caregivers 

    • Pretend play about the hospital, sickness, or doctors 

    • A lot of questions about cancer 

    • Behavior that seems young for their age, like: 

      • Bed-wetting after successful potty training 

      • Thumb sucking 

  • How can I help? 

    • Use pictures and dolls to talk about cancer 

    • Read stories about cancer 

    • Tell them that they did not cause the cancer. They will not catch it like you would a cold. 

    • Tell them about cancer using easy to understand language when questions come up. 


School Age (6-12 years) 

  • What do they know? 

    • Might think they can catch cancer like the flu or cold 

    • Know that cancer is a serious sickness 

    • Might think they caused the sickness ("magical thinking") 

  • How do they react? 

    • Behavior that seems young for their age (like baby talk) Act out and pull away from parents, family, and friends 

    • Anger, worry, fear, sadness, and feeling shame. They think their sick parent is different. 

  • How can I help? 

    • Put their mind at rest. Tell them that nothing they did caused the cancer. 

    • Tell them cancer is caused by sick cells in the body. They stop healthy cells from doing their job. 

    • Encourage them to talk about their feelings 

Teens (13-18 years) 

  • What do they know? 

    • Understand sickness at a more complex level (like causes, signs, and results of treatment) 

    • Know people get sick. They do not talk about feelings of worry or fear. 

  • How do they react? 

    • Might turn to friends for comfort more than family 

    • Might show low mood, worry, and withdrawal 

    • Might have bodily signs (such as stomachache or headache) 

  • How can I help? 

    • Support talks with family. Focus on talking about feelings. 

    • Encourage them to hang out with friends and keep normal routines 

    • Look into opportunities for counseling 


Monitor behavior.

Just like you, children may experience a roller coaster of feelings, from sadness to confusion, even anger. Tell your child that these emotions are normal and you experience them, too. Keep an eye on them for lingering reactions to your conversations. They may act out or be unusually quiet. They may not even respond right away when you tell them about the cancer.

It’s okay to have them process some things in their minds, but when you think your child needs help coping with all the challenges of your cancer diagnosis, tell your care team. They will connect you to resources, such as counselors or support groups. They also may encourage participation in programs or retreats specifically designed for children of cancer patients.

Give them something to do.

Empower your children by letting them help you whenever they can. It can be something as simple as picking out a movie to watch together, playing a game, or assisting with chores around the house. Older children who are away at college or living independently can schedule regular times to chat by phone or via a video conference call. They also can help create a personal website (e.g. caringbridge.org) or coordinate volunteers to handle needed tasks.

Answer the big question: “Are you going to die?”

The biggest question of all to handle is when children ask if you are going to die. Even if they don’t ask it out loud, they are thinking about it from time to time, so it’s important to be prepared to answer this question. The reality is that although many people survive a cancer diagnosis, some do not.

Be honest with your children. If there’s a good chance your cancer can be successfully treated, tell them that. Tell them you have good doctors who are doing their best to get rid of the cancer and you believe you will get better. There may be times when you feel terrible, but you are optimistic about getting through the journey.

If your cancer is aggressive or it will be difficult to treat, you can still offer some positive thoughts. Tell them you don’t know what will happen but you and your doctors are doing everything possible to fight the cancer. Reassure them they are loved and they will be cared for no matter what happens.

If you have made arrangements for someone to take your children to and from school or activities while you are being treated for cancer, make sure the kids know in advance so they don’t think something has gone wrong. It’s important for your children to keep to a normal routine as much as possible. That includes going to school or work and spending time with friends.

Make time for your children.

It’s vitally important that a parent spend time with their children throughout cancer treatment. In fact, you can regularly update your family after every treatment (in person or by phone), so they don’t feel you are keeping information secret. Ask them if they have any new questions or concerns, too.

Find a support system.

Additional resources:  

Book recommendations: 

Finding the right words to help children and teens deal with cancer is hard. You can help them name their feelings with: 

  • Books 

  • Workbooks 

  • Activity books 

  • Coloring books 

They can find ways to cope with their parent's new cancer diagnosis. This is a broad list of books you can use with children and teens: Resource List. 

Some books are available free for patients of UI Health Care. Please speak with a member of the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Program child and family life team.