Health Library: Cancer

Many people have parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, or other family members who have cancer. Each situation is unique, but some of the advice offered about explaining cancer to children applies to every family. One of the most important things to remember is that children are most concerned with their relationship to the person who has cancer. Explaining that a child’s mother has cancer is very different than explaining that a neighbor has cancer. Helping children find ways to share their feelings and ask questions is also important when dealing with this sensitive topic.

Explaining Cancer

When explaining cancer to children, use terms they understand. Words like “malignancy” and “chemotherapy” will only serve to confuse or scare a child. One way to explain cancer is by saying that the body is made up of cells that have different functions. “These are the normal cells the body needs to work the right way. Cancer cells do not look like or function like these normal cells. They grow so fast that they crowd out normal cells and prevent the normal cells from functioning properly. When these cancer cells grow on a certain part of the body, a doctor might have to operate to remove the cells. Other people have to take special chemicals or get treated with radioactive rays to get rid of the cancer cells. Some people lose their hair when they have these treatments, but that is because the chemicals and radioactive rays also kill normal cells. After the treatment ends, the hair grows back.”

It is also important to explain that you cannot catch cancer, as a child might assume that cancer is contagious. Explaining the severity of the cancer should be done with sensitivity and honesty. If a family member, friend, or neighbor has advanced cancer and a poor prognosis, do not tell the child that the person will get better. Explain that some people get better and some people do not. If doctors are optimistic about the person’s prognosis, then you can tell the child that the doctors are very hopeful that the cancer will go away.

Answering Questions

Children naturally have a lot of questions when someone explains what cancer is and how it affects the body. Most children will not understand full answers about this issue, but parents should give kids enough information to ease fears and concerns. Parents should also be careful not to confuse their children, which can be a challenging task. Many children find it difficult to speak up and ask questions, even when they are worrying about something a lot. Instead of waiting for a child to ask questions, encourage him or her to ask questions in a supportive and caring environment. Many parents operate on the assumption that children will ask questions about anything they want to know however many times children will hold their questions inside and worry themselves. Parents and family members should also follow up with kids to make sure they understand what is going on. Kids may need additional explanations to clear up any confusion.

A parent’s emotional reaction plays a big role in how a child will feel when talking about cancer. If a family member acts upset and scared, then a child may pick up on these feelings and ask questions about them. When explaining cancer to children, being discreet with these emotions can help parents avoid sparking fear and confusion. Having this conversation with a child makes it possible for parents to discuss other sensitive issues, improving parent-child communication and helping parents to show that they value their children’s feelings. Overall it is important for the child to feel that they can openly communicate with their parents about difficult subjects so topics such as cancer should be approached in a very delicate manner while still being honest.

The following resources offer valuable tips and advice on explaining cancer to children.

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