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Telling the Kids

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

If you are diagnosed with cancer when you have young children, you’re faced with what to share with them and how to share it.

It is important to realize that cancer affects the entire family and not just the person with cancer. As a member of that family, children have the right to be included.

Children can usually sense when something is wrong. And they will likely overhear the word “cancer” when you’re talking with someone else. If you tell them the truth, they can focus on the reality rather than the even scarier things in their imagination.

When you talk with your children, it is important to use language they understand and to be sensitive to their concerns.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Children need to be assured of their own security. How will family life change as a result of what’s happening? Who will pick them up from school? Who will make dinner? These questions come up even during a brief hospitalization.
  • It’s OK to say you don’t know the answer to a question. This is often the reality with cancer – we may not know why something happened or what is going to happen next.
  • You don’t have to share everything at once. Several shorter conversations are often better than one long conversation.
  • Be honest. Don’t promise what you may not be able to keep.
  • Encourage your kids to ask questions and set aside time for that purpose.
  • Reassure them that cancer is not passed from one person to another. Nothing they did caused your cancer nor can they get cancer from you.
  • Let them know about your treatment and any expected side effects. If you’re going to lose your hair from chemotherapy, let them know in advance so they won’t be surprised.
  • Inform your children’s school about your cancer so the teachers can be supportive and be alert for potential changes in behavior.


Sometimes children will ask the difficult question, “Are you going to die?” Breastcancer.org provides an illustration of a good answer: “The doctors have told me that my chances of being cured are very good. I’m going to believe that until I have reason to believe something else. I want you to believe that too. I’ll tell you if that changes.”

We all want these conversations to go perfectly, but don’t be hard on yourself if you get tongue-tied or emotional. It’s a hard time for everyone. Kids understand that, too.


From the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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