Exploring the Sensitive Topic of Cancer: Tips for Discussing with Children


Catherine, the Princess of Wales (formerly known as Kate Middleton) announced that she was diagnosed with cancer and that it was a complete shock. During her statement, she emphasized that she had previously stayed silent to give her family the time to privately explain her diagnosis to her young three children. She continued that she wanted to share the news in a way that was appropriate for them and to reassure them that she was going to be okay. One of the hardest parts of parenting is sharing information with your child that you don’t always have all the knowledge on or sharing news that is shocking or sad to you too. When you are not a pro in a topic your child is asking about or experiencing it can make it difficult to speak and act authoritatively on the situation. Especially when the topic may be new, scary, and bring on some big feelings.

Talking to kids about cancer can be one of those difficult situations because you may not have all the answers and are oftentimes processing the information as well. At the end of the day, just like parenting, we do the best we can and we take on hard times and hard conversations as a family.

Reena B. Patel, Parenting Expert, Positive Psychologist, and Licensed Educational Board Certified Behavior Analyst shares her tips for starting the conversation: How to share the news of cancer with your children.

  • Use age-appropriate language: Tailor your explanation to the child’s age and level of understanding. Keep it simple and avoid using medical jargon. Sit down with your child and give them your full attention. Being too casual or too distracted can cause confusion.
  • Be mindful of your setting and plan the conversation: Make sure the timing is right and you are in a safe place, such as your home, and with just your immediate family. Being out in public in case they show big emotions is not ideal, or if they are around others such as extended family and/or friends or strangers they may feel disconnected and taken off guard. Make sure everyone is calm before sharing the news and you have no plans to be anywhere soon so everyone has the time they need to talk and process together.
  • Be honest: Explain that cancer is a disease that happens when cells in the body start to grow out of control. You can compare it to weeds in a garden that grows too fast and can cause problems. You want to be honest with them so they trust you and know you are not lying to them which will heighten their fears. If they feel like they are not receiving the full picture, it may cause them to worry more, look into it on their own discover a range of possibly true or not true information, or shut down because they are scared of the unknown.
  • Emphasize that it’s not contagious: Assure the child that cancer is not something they can catch from someone else like a cold or the flu. Once receiving the news an initial reaction could be that they feel scared so taking any of these concerns off their mental load so they can focus on one thing is a good place to start.
  • Reassure them and show your own emotions: Let them know that doctors and scientists are working hard to treat cancer and help people get better. Validate their feelings that it’s okay to feel scared, sad, or confused. Share with them how you feel about it. Encourage emotion and that it’s ok to have big feelings about the news and that you are there for them. This is a great teaching moment to model that emotions are okay and show them how you are dealing with big emotions too.
  • Encourage questions and ask them what they know about cancer already: Be open to answering any questions they may have, and keep the conversation going using developmentally appropriate language. Understanding their knowledge of cancer will also help you see where they are at and what additional information they need.
  • Set expectations about what is going to happen so they know what to expect. This can be topics like mom may lose her hair, mom will have to spend some time at the doctor more often, and what that looks like for them and their current routines.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here