Explaining a Cancer Diagnosis to a Child

Cancer is difficult for adults to understand, let alone children. So how much do you tell a child when someone they know receives a diagnosis?

Parents want to shield their children from anything that is worrisome, so it’s natural to want to keep details from children regarding a cancer diagnosis. However, withholding information about a family member’s health can be damaging.

“When information is withheld or kept secret, a child still knows something is wrong,”
says DeAnn Gallatin, MS, LSW, an oncology social worker at Kettering Health. “Secrecy can
prompt a child to believe something is their fault, and a lack of information can result in the
child developing anxiety.”

Child development and child psychology experts agree, talking to children about a loved one’s cancer is the healthiest choice and can have lifelong benefits.

Tips for a Tough Discussion

Information helps a child feel in control. How much information to provide about cancer depends on the level of interest of the child and who in their life received a diagnosis.

“I recommend using the child’s level of interest and their questions as a guide for how much information to provide and then to keep the door to communication open,” says DeAnn. “If a parent or grandparent has received a cancer diagnosis, the child will likely see changes in theirday-to-day routine and will have more questions. If it is a neighbor, teacher, or coach, the child’s routine is less likely to be disrupted, but it is still important to talk about cancer and the changes the child might see in this person.”

Some talking points and coping strategies remain the same no matter the child’s age:

● Let them know their loved one has cancer and that the doctors are helping.
● Try to keep the child’s routine as consistent as possible.
● Identify a regular caregiver who can devote time each day to the child.
● Let the child tour the medical facility and meet providers.

Changes in Appearance

Talking to a child about the outward effects of cancer and treatment is also significant. Children need to understand that the disease and the treatment can be hard on the body. Let children know that nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and fatigue can all occur, and reinforce that the doctors will help by giving the loved one medicine for some of these side effects.

“Knowledge gives children power and that power can be used to help their loved one as they go through the cancer journey,” says DeAnn. “It can also be used to help children deal with their own emotions.”

Resources to Help

Kettering Health offers a six-week program for children ages five to 12 who have a loved one going through cancer called CLIMB® (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery). This program gives children a safe environment to express how they feel while being surrounded by trained experts and other children going through a similar experience.

The CLIMB® program focuses on three C’s:
1. You can’t catch it.
2. You didn’t cause it.
3. You can help.

To learn more about CLIMB® as well as other cancer care resources, visit
ketteringhealth.org/cancercare

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