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Impact of diagnosis on children

Children are likely to be affected by a parent’s cancer diagnosis. Depending on their age, children may know something is wrong without even being told. Change can be frightening for children. It can be difficult for them to adjust, especially if their parent looks different or is in hospital for a time. Children may worry about what the diagnosis means for them — whether they will be left alone and whether they might also develop cancer.

It can be helpful for parents to talk to their children about a cancer diagnosis and treatment so they understand what’s going on. It’s important to answer their questions as honestly as possible in words they can understand. What they imagine to be happening is possibly more upsetting to them than the reality will be once it’s explained.

The following tips may be helpful:

  • Ask each of your children how they’re feeling and recognise their distress.
  • Try to understand what it is that they fear will happen. This will help you to decide what information they can handle and how it should be given.
  • Talk to them about feelings as well as facts.
  • Give simple, honest answers to their questions and correct any misunderstandings. Children respond well when they feel they are being given time especially for them.
  • Try to explain what will happen next.
  • Don’t make promises you may be unable to keep.
  • Maintain a sense of routine and encourage them to socialise with their friends and participate in their usual activities.
  • Reassure them that the cancer is not their fault — this is especially important for younger children.
  • Adolescents may have mixed emotions, loyalties and coping abilities. In some respects, they thrive on being regarded as an adult, but during times of illness in the family, it can be really hard going. Be aware of this and look for signs that an adolescent needs a little extra support and encouragement.

Cancer Council NSW has developed a booklet about talking to children about cancer called When a parent has cancer: how to talk to your kids.