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Talking to your kids about cancer

If you have cancer, discussing it with your children may be difficult. But listening and talking to them can be reassuring and can help them come to terms with it.

Keep it simple

Children may have heard things about cancer that frighten them, so speak to them honestly and simply about what you're going through. Ask them what they think cancer is, and explain anything they don't know.

Be honest

Breast Cancer Care's nurse specialist for younger women advises using the word cancer from the start. "Explain it in language your children will understand. The word cancer becomes less frightening for everyone if it's described as cells that have grown faster than other cells in the body.”

Create time and space to talk

A spokesperson from Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity that supports patients, suggests you choose a time and a place to talk to your children where they're most likely to listen and feel at ease, and you won't be interrupted.

Let them know they can always ask you questions and talk to you about how they feel, especially if they're sad and upset. They need to know you'll listen to their worries and help them cope.   

Reassure them

Let them know that even though you're ill, you still love and care for them. Explain how your illness might affect your moods and feelings, but that you'll always love them.

Be clear

You don’t have to tell them everything at once. Just be clear about the situation you’re in. If you don’t know the answer to any of their questions, say so. It might be a good idea to read about it together or ask a doctor or nurse to explain things.

Be positive with them

“Try to be honest yet hopeful, but be careful not to make promises you're not sure you can keep,” says Breast Cancer Care's nurse specialist. “Most of all, your children need to know that everyone’s doing all they can to make you better, that you still love and care for them, and that there are things they can do to help.”

Younger children

"Young children react to being separated from you and to changes in their routine," says Macmillan's spokesperson. Ask people who your children feel safe and familiar with to help look after them, or take over some of the things you usually do. Young children need consistency so it's a good idea, if possible, to have the same person helping. Always try to let them know in advance about any changes to their usual routine.

“If you're in hospital, have a regular time to call home, or when they can call or text you," says the spokesperson. "Make sure they have a photo of you and tell them you'll be thinking about them. Prepare them in advance for what they're likely to see when they visit you, and tell about the different people who are there to help you."

Children aged between 6 and 12 years old can understand more about the cancer and its effects on the body. Use simple, straightforward language and short sentences to explain things, and don't overload them with information.

All children need reassurance that:

- nothing they, or anyone else, did or thought caused the cancer

- cancer isn't like a cold, and you can't catch it - it's OK to sit close, hug or kiss


“Teenagers may find it hard to talk to you or to show you how they feel, and at times their behaviour may be difficult," states Macmillan's spokesperson.

"Help them see that talking about feelings is a positive and mature way of coping. Encourage them to talk to someone close, such as a relative or family friend. Ask them what they think, and include them as you would an adult. But don't forget they still need your guidance and support, and keep the usual rules and limits."

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