Nine Tips for Talking to Kids about Cancer

May 15, 2023

We understand how difficult it can be to navigate and mentally process a cancer diagnosis on your own, let alone bringing children into the conversation. 

In our 30th podcast episode, our host Lauren Bineau sat down with our licensed clinical oncology social worker and family program manager, Michelle Massey. Michelle has over twenty years of experience, including directing our Camp Sparkle program and facilitating numerous support groups. 

Here are some tips from their conversation on how to discuss cancer with children. Tune in to our podcast for a deeper dive on their discussion. 

Tip #1: Don’t put it off. 


Trust us, we know it’s a hard conversation. But kids know when something is happening. When they don’t know what it is, they’ll try to fill in the blanks by imagining what it could be, and this is often much worse than reality. 

What we hear from kids and teenagers touched by cancer is that they don’t want anything hidden from them. They want to know the truth, because this experience also impacts them.

There is a lot of uncertainty on people’s cancer journeys. Start with something they can be certain of: you are being honest with them, and they can trust you.

Tip #2: Help them visualize what cancer is.


We encourage using the word cancer. Don’t whisper it. 

Show them where it is in the body. Tell them the treatments you’ll be getting. If you have an IV drip, a port, a medical device, show them and tell them that is where the medicine is. 

You can in some ways make it into a game to try to explain to them, depending on what their age is, whatever is going to resonate with them. Most can visualize it. Drawing a flowchart, or a timeline to show the different stages of the treatment plan, or what their doctors say the timeline is going to look like, are all creative ways of involving them in the process.

The key is to help eliminate as much uncertainty as you can. They want to be involved, and they will be interested! 

Tip #3: Give them as much information as you have. 


Communicate with them what your diagnosis is, where the cancer is located, what treatment is going to look like, how often you’re getting treatment, and how their life is going to change. 

Kids want to be involved with their surroundings. They want to know: Is someone else picking them up from school? Can their parent with cancer still play with them? Are the foods they eat going to change? Will family members be coming to stay with you? Create a space where they can ask questions or express their feelings. 

Tip #4: Lean into your anxiety. 


There is going to be anxiety in your cancer journey, why wouldn’t there be? We encourage you to lean into that. 

Don’t sugarcoat it. Talk about how you and your family manage difficult situations. Who or what helps you? How do you manage stress? Be honest and open about your anxiety with your children. When you do this, you teach them resilience. They can do hard things, we can all do hard things, your family can do hard things. 

Hard things happen all the time in life, cancer is just one of them. Leaning into these conversations can help us get through it together in a way that allows our mind, body, heart, and spirit to grow.

Tip #5: Life is going to be different, be open about that. 


Your lives may not go back to the way they were before your diagnosis. Frame your conversation to acknowledge that. This sets your child up for a growth-perspective and a growth-mindset. 

Nothing in life stays the same. Focus on teaching them resiliency. 


Tip #6: Talk about your prognosis in stages


All cancer journeys are different, and some prognoses are longer than others. Talk about your prognosis in stages. 

Start in the beginning with your diagnosis, and the next steps of your treatment. Take it one step at a time. Honesty is always the best policy, but a life-ending prognosis can be saved for a later date. Focus on the stages you are certain of right now, and that you are facing the rest of your journey together


Tip #7: Talk to their teachers


Your child might be more distracted at school. They might be more tearful, they might need breaks. Let their teacher know so they can have the space and understanding that they need during this time. 

Remember, you’re teaching your child resilience. How are they going to get through this? Who are they going to call on for help? Let their teachers be a resource to them. 


Tip #8: Be open and honest about death. 


In America, we tend to glamorize death in a way that makes it seem scary and final. In cultures like Mexico, death is celebrated as a beautiful thing. 

Bodies that live, die. Everything that is living will die. This is a healthy conversation, but it can absolutely be a sad and difficult conversation to have. When it’s a conversation of honesty, your children will appreciate it. 

If you’re at the end of your journey, your medication has stopped working, or your treatments have stopped working, it’s time to talk to your children about death, what it is and what it looks like. Be prepared to have answers to their questions. We often hear them ask: Does it hurt? Where do you go? What happens to your body?


Tip #9: Connect them to a community. 


Involve your child in a community. At Cancer Pathways, we have an excellent kids program called Camp Sparkle, and it’s completely free of cost to kids and their families. Additionally, any children’s hospital will have children’s programs available for you too. 

If you’re worried that bringing your child to a cancer group will make them more anxious, or have negative effects, it won’t. They are already thinking about cancer and worrying about it. Once they come into a cancer support group, it builds community, increases their self esteem, and fortifies their ability to handle this journey and other difficult situations that will come up in life. 

Beyond that, it creates a safe environment for them and gives them control over their experiences so they can choose how to interact with others regarding cancer. 

Outside of Camp Sparkle, or other children and family programs, cancer makes them interesting. In these programs and communities, it doesn’t! Everyone here is living with cancer. Everyone here understands what it means to have a loved one with cancer. It makes them feel less isolated, less alone. 


Registration for Camp Sparkle is open now. Camp Sparkle is our free summer day camp for children and teens who have been impacted by cancer – either from a personal diagnosis or that of a loved one. 

We offer camps in Bellevue, Everett, Online/Virtual, Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma. Campers experience a week of learning about cancer, participating in therapeutic activities, going on field trips, and making friends with campers and counselors who are just like them.