Talking to young people about cancer

Telling your child you have cancer is tough. Here are some suggestions on how to tackle the conversation.

  • Make sure you are ready. Telling your child you have cancer can be confronting and difficult. Don’t attempt it while you’re still in shock or dealing with strong emotions.
  • Talk through your concerns, and perhaps practice what you want to say, with another adult. Ask the oncology social worker, psychologist or other health professionals at the hospital for some advice on what to say, or contact a CanTeen counsellor to talk it through (1800 835 932 or support@canteen.org.au).
  • Talk to other parents who’ve been through this to find out how they handled it. It can be a relief to know you’re not the first to grapple with this, and that others understand what you are going through. Contact the Cancer Council (13 11 20) or ask your nurse or social worker about support groups or peer support programs for parents with cancer.
  • Prepare yourself for how you think your child might react. Common reactions and feelings that other young people who’ve had a parent with cancer have described are available.
  • Decide when to break the news. There is no ‘right time’ to tell your children about your cancer, but generally if you delay too long they will have worked out something is wrong.
  • The best time is probably as soon as you feel able. Even if you don’t have all the information yet tell them what you can, and assure them that as soon as you know more you will tell them.
  • Choose a time and place where there’s unlikely to be any interruptions or distractions.
  • If you have more than one child it may be better to talk to each one separately. You can tailor information to their age and understanding, and they may be more willing to ask questions away from other siblings.
  • Decide if you want another adult to be with you. In a two-parent household, it may be a good idea to talk to your children together. If you’re a single parent, you might like to have an adult, relative or friend who has a strong relationship with your child, to be with you.

Find out how much they know about cancer and the experiences of anyone who has had or died from cancer. You might need to explain that just because Granddad died from cancer 10 years ago doesn’t mean you will, because yours is a different type and treatments have improved since then. Make sure they know your cancer has nothing to do with anything they did, said or thought.

Children generally find out anyway – as you’ve probably discovered by now kids overhear phone conversations and can hear through walls – and will then be wondering what else you’re not telling them or feel resentful.

The basic information you need to share at this stage is:

  • the type and site of your cancer
  • how it will be treated (if you know/have decided)
  • likely side effects of the treatment and impacts on you e.g. not being able to work
  • how your cancer is going to affect them and your family life

If you know, tell them about your treatment – what it is, how long it will last, and how it might affect your appearance or behaviour. Don’t overload them with too much detail now, particularly about medical procedures – and when talking about your treatment keep it general rather than personal e.g. say “I’ll have surgery to remove the cancer” rather than “The doctor will then cut me open”.

Prepare them for any possible physical changes or likely side effects of treatment such as weight changes, fatigue or hair loss so that they are not shocked or worried about any changes they notice.

If they are coming to see you at the hospital, prepare them for what they might see (like machines or IV lines), hear or even smell. This can make their visit to the hospital or clinic less intimidating.

This lets them know it’s okay to show your emotions, and that you don’t always know what to do or say. Reassure them that even though you – and they – are scared and upset, your family can handle this.

Every young person will react differently to the news that their parent has cancer. Some of the emotions that other young people who’ve been through this have described are:

  • Sadness: Naturally. If they cry let them know it’s okay to do so and to never be worried about letting you see they are upset.
  • Fear: Regardless of their age, it’s natural for your children to become fearful and worry about what will happen to them when you’re in hospital or if you become really ill. Remind them of the support network around your family and reassure them that they will always be cared for. Often they will be less scared when they have more information about what is likely to happen.
  • Anger: Let them know it’s okay to feel angry, but there are good and bad ways of dealing with it.
  • Shock/disbelief: Even if they sensed something was wrong they probably weren’t expecting it would be cancer.
  • Guilt: Young people may feel guilty about their parent’s cancer for various reasons – because they’re healthy and you’re not, because they’ve said or thought bad things about you, or because they’re annoyed about the extra responsibilities they’re expected to take on because you’re sick.
  • Numb/nothing: Your child may appear not to have heard you or not react at all. This reaction isn’t unusual among teenagers – they may be feeling shock and need some time to digest the news. It doesn’t mean they don’t care.

They need to know that any combination of these feelings is normal and okay. It can help them know how other young people in the same situation have reacted. They can connect with other young people who have a parent with cancer in the CanTeen Community, our secure and moderated online community.

If you are worried about your child’s reaction or how they are – or are not – expressing their feelings, contact one of CanTeen’s counsellors for a confidential chat on 1800 835 932 or email support@canteen.org.au.