Talking to your child and other children about cancer
It's not easy to talk with children about cancer. You will need to decide how much to tell your child and their siblings, based on their age and maturity levels. The most important thing is to be open, positive and honest with them.
If possible, include your child in conversations about treatments. If they are old enough, they can let you know how they feel about certain treatment and care options. As they improve, talk to them about their return to normal activities, such as school, sports and social events.
It’s important to include your child’s siblings in some discussions. They will know if something is wrong, so it’s best to tell them what’s going on right from the start.1
Are you a child with cancer?
Feelings and fears
If your mum or dad or your doctor has told you that you have cancer, you might be confused. You might not be sure what this means. You might be feeling sad and scared because you know it is something pretty serious. You might also feel angry because this is happening to you. Lots of children feel this way when they find out they have cancer.
Best to talk to mum or dad or another adult you trust
When you first find out you have cancer, you probably don’t know any other children like you. You won’t be able to ask anyone what it’s like. But you can talk to your mum or dad or another adult. They can talk to you and help to explain what’s happening.
After your treatment starts, you’ll meet other children with cancer. Sometimes it helps to talk to them about how you feel.
Why did I get cancer?
You might think you got cancer because of something you did. But you didn’t. Doctors don’t know exactly why some children get cancer. But it's not because of anything you did wrong. And it’s not because of anything your parents did wrong.
Cancer isn’t ‘catching’. It’s not like a cold or the flu. Don’t be scared that other people will catch cancer. You can have as many hugs and kisses as you like.
Changes to expect
You’ll have tests and treatments for your cancer. You might have an operation. You’ll probably need some special medicines. Your life will change a lot. You’ll need to go to the doctors and hospitals a lot. Sometimes you might need to stay in hospital for a few days with your mother or father. Sometimes this might be only for a day. But you will still be able to play and have fun.
You might also look different while you're getting your medicines. Your weight might change. Your hair might fall out.
There will be people around to help
Everyone you know and love will all be helping you. You'll also meet other children with cancer. You can talk to them about how you feel. You might even make some new friends.
Let someone know
If you start to feel really sad about your cancer, make sure you tell someone. You can tell your mum or dad, or someone else.
Some children have bad dreams about their cancer. Other children don’t like going to places that reminds them about their cancer.
If this happens to you, make sure you tell someone. Doctors can help make sure you don’t feel like this when you get better.
For brothers and sisters
This section has been written for brothers and sisters who can read. Share this information with your child’s siblings if you think it’s appropriate and might help them.
Feelings and fears
If your brother or sister has cancer, you're probably sad and worried. You love them and you want them to get better.
It might be a bit scary seeing your brother or sister at the hospital. Your brother or sister might be upset, in pain or look or act differently.
You might also feel lonely without your brother or sister to play with. This might make you feel guilty because you are well and want to play, and your brother or sister is sick.
You might be jealous when they get all the attention and you feel left out.
It’s OK to feel like this. If you do, talk to your mum or dad. They will be able to tell you what's happening. You can also talk to your grandma or grandpa or aunt or uncle. You might want to talk to another adult who you trust, like your teacher or a counsellor at school. Your brother’s or sister’s hospital also has people for you to talk to.
Ask your mum or dad or another adult you trust about your brother’s or sister’s cancer. Ask what cancer is. Ask what the treatment is, and why they are in the hospital so much. Ask your mum or dad how you can help.
You can't catch cancer
Cancer isn’t ‘catching’. You can’t catch cancer from your brother or sister. You can still give them lots of hugs and kisses. It’s not like a cold or chickenpox.
You might be scared you’ll get cancer as well, but there's no need to worry. Cancer is very rare, and it's not common for more than one child in a family to get cancer.
It's OK not to be OK
If you're feeling sad, don’t pretend to be OK. What you're going through is very hard. It’s better if you’re honest about how you feel. Don’t tell your mum or dad that you’re OK because you don’t want to make them sad. Your mum or dad love you. They want you and your brother and sister to be OK.
Remember that other people won't know how you feel. It's not happening to them. They might not know what it's like for you.
Your friends might not know what to say. They may be scared to ask questions or say something a bit silly. So, you need to tell your friends how you feel. Tell them what they can do to help you feel better.
Being a transplant donor
If your brother or sister has leukaemia or some other types of cancer, your mum or dad might ask you to help. They might ask you to donate some of your stem cells for a treatment. Some people call it a bone marrow transplant, or a stem cell transplant.
Stem cells are special kinds of cells that are found in your bone marrow. This is the spongy stuff inside your bones. Stem cells can make new blood cells.
Some kinds of cancer happen because the person's blood cells don't work the way they should. Doctors can replace the bad blood cells with new stem cells. Stem cells can help make healthy new blood cells, and this can help fight the cancer.
Your brother’s or sister’s doctor will explain everything to you. You will need to have some tests to make sure you have the right kind of cells. Your stem cells have almost exactly like your brother's or sister's stem cells.
If your cells aren't the right kind, don't feel bad. There's nothing that you or anyone could have done about it. It’s a bit like if you have brown hair and your brother or sister has blond hair. You were just born that way.
Cancer Council Australia has put together these guides to help you talk to your children about cancer:
- Talking to kids about cancer: a guide for people with cancer, their families and friends is a booklet you can download. It offers advice about how to talk to children about their cancer, and other family members. Some of this information is available on their webpage Talking to kids about cancer.
- Cancer words for kids is a child-friendly glossary that gives tips about words to use when talking about cancer with children.
How a child understands cancer talks about how children of different ages understand and cope with cancer.
For young people with cancer, the Youth Cancer Services provide specialist, age-specific treatment and support.
The following resources are for siblings of children with cancer:
- Canteen's free online books for siblings. Canteen helps young people (aged 12 to 24) cope with their cancer or cancer in their family. Through Canteen, young people can access counselling, information and other support. They can also connect with others going through the same thing.
- Siblings Australia has more information about being a brother or sister to someone who's sick. The website has stories from other children about how they deal with it.
Books can also help explain cancer to children. Here are a few suggestions:
For younger children
Is Cancer Contagious? by Vern Kousky
What Every Child Needs to Know About Cancer by Bradley Snyder and Marc Engelsgjerd
The Famous Hat by Kate Gaynor and Ruth Keating
Chemo to the Rescue by Mary Brent and Caitlin Knutsson
The Hare Who Lost Her Hair by Amy Leonard and Tom Paul Fox
For older children
The Stars Twinkle Brightly by Mary E Fam
For any age
The Secret C: Straight Talking About Cancer by Julie Stokes
The video Someone in my family has cancer: A video for kids and parents can be helpful in explaining cancer to siblings.