Talking to children about cancer

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By talking to a child about their cancer diagnosis and treatment, health professionals play an important role in helping a child understand the experience. Children who have learnt that they have cancer will be confused and frightened and may need a lot of support to help them cope. 

The child’s family will provide the main support, but as a health professional, there are many ways you can help. 

Be inclusive

Include the child in conversations about their disease. This can: 

  • help to build their trust and confidence in you and your health care colleagues 
  • reduce their fears
  • provide a good role model for families.

Reassure them

Reinforce the messages that: 

  • they haven't done anything wrong that has caused them to get cancer 
  • they can't pass the disease on to their siblings or friends. 

See Living with children's cancer.

Explain what is happening

Explain as clearly as you can:

  • what their cancer is
  • what the tests and treatment will involve
  • what will happen to their bodies, such as hair loss
  • what will happen to their feelings, such as having less energy or feeling sad 
  • how long these effects will last. 

Cancer words for kids can help you explain things using words that children can understand.

Familiarise the child with any equipment that will be used in their tests and treatment. Working with play therapists/child life specialists can help with this as they often have examples of equipment that might be used and have good skills in explaining these things to children.

If they are undergoing tests and treatment in a hospital, show them: 

  • where they will be sleeping
  • where their parents and siblings will be
  • where they can play.

Encourage questions

Encourage the child to ask questions and express any fears. Answer their questions simply and honestly. Reassure them that they can keep in touch with their family and friends during their treatment. 

Use the same principles to talk with the siblings of children with cancer.

More information

How a child understands cancer has useful information on how children of different ages understand and cope with cancer. 

Other useful resources are in Talking to families about children's cancer.