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Talking to children about their cancer

It is only natural to want to protect a child and their siblings about a cancer diagnosis. However, for most children, the regular hospital visits and tests, missing school and other activities will alert them to the fact that something is wrong. Most children pick up on their parent’s feelings. How they react to upsetting news often depends on how the parents are coping with it.

We recommend being open and honest with young people about a cancer diagnosis. Reliable, age-appropriate information can help them understand and cope with changes. However, an honest discussion can be tremendously difficult, particularly when trying to cope with the diagnosis yourself.

If possible, both parents should talk to the child. This way they can support each other. It is important not to overload children with information. Throughout the conversation, clarify that the child understands what is being said. Be sure that all significant people in the child’s life know what has been said. Keep things consistent and honest. It is important not to promise a child anything that adults cannot be sure of.

Letting children know how adults are feeling can will allow them to express their own feelings more easily. Reassure children that whatever they are feeling is normal and that they will be supported throughout.

How much information you share with your child will depend on their age and maturity. Keep your initial explanations simple and take your cue from your child as to whether they want to know more. The first conversation will be followed by many others, so you will have the opportunity to give more detail as the need arises.

The paediatric oncologist, clinical nurse consultant and social worker at your child’s hospital will be able to provide further guidance and assist you with these discussions
Remember that your child’s hospital team is there to support the family as well. The social worker can let you know what support services are available, particularly if you need to travel long distances for treatment.

As much as possible, include your child in discussions about their treatment and recovery, and encourage them to ask questions. Older children and teenagers may want to seek out information themselves.

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