How to Teach Kids About Cancer

Hi, I’m Mysa York, and as a mother to a 7-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter, life is full of energy and curiosity. Recently, our family was thrown into turmoil when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Facing the task of explaining this to my children felt overwhelming. How do you break such news to young minds without shattering their sense of security? Here’s how I approached this sensitive conversation, drawing from expert advice and personal experience.

Understanding Cancer: Simple Explanations

The first step was understanding how to explain what cancer is in terms that my kids could grasp. The National Cancer Institute defines cancer as a disease where some of the body’s cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body. To make this concept relatable, I explained it like this: “Imagine our body is a garden. Sometimes, weeds can grow and take over, not letting the flowers grow properly. Cancer is like those weeds.”

Using simple, concrete terms helps children understand without feeling overwhelmed. I assured them that cancer isn’t something they can catch from someone else, like a cold. This reassurance was crucial in preventing unnecessary fears about contagion.

Setting the Tone: Honesty and Reassurance

Children are incredibly perceptive and can often sense when something is amiss. Shelby Doyle, Clinical Social Work/Therapist, LCSW, emphasizes the importance of honesty. She advises that it’s best to inform children about a cancer diagnosis before starting treatment. This way, they understand why a family member might be feeling unwell or spending more time at the hospital.

I gathered my kids in a comfortable, private space and explained the situation calmly. “Grandma has something called cancer,” I told them. “It’s a serious illness, but her doctors are working very hard to help her get better.” Keeping a calm tone, even though I felt anything but calm inside, was important to help them feel secure. As Doyle suggests, setting a reassuring tone helps children see that you are coping as best as you can, which in turn helps them to cope too.

Tailoring the Conversation: Age-Appropriate Approaches

Understanding that children at different developmental stages process information differently is key. For my 7-year-old, the explanation was straightforward and focused on what he might see and experience. I used a doll to show him where Grandma’s cancer was and reassured him that it wasn’t contagious.

With my 9-year-old daughter, the conversation was slightly more detailed. At this age, children can handle more information and may have specific questions. I encouraged her to ask anything she was curious about, and I promised to find out the answers if I didn’t know them immediately. According to, letting children ask questions and providing honest answers helps them feel included and reassured.

Read More: How to Talk to Kids About Grandparent Death

Addressing Emotional Reactions

Children’s emotional responses to learning about a loved one’s cancer can vary widely. They might feel scared, sad, angry, or even guilty. It’s important to validate these feelings and let them know that it’s okay to feel this way. notes that acknowledging their feelings and reassuring them that their reactions are normal is crucial. “It’s okay to be scared or sad,” I told them. “I feel that way too sometimes, but we are all here for each other, and we will get through this together”.

Creating a safe space for them to express their thoughts and feelings can be very beneficial. I found that having regular family meetings and a question jar where they could write down their questions or worries helped them open up.

Maintaining Routine and Normalcy

One of the biggest challenges was maintaining a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos. Children thrive on routine, and disruptions can add to their stress. Doyle recommends maintaining as much of the usual routine as possible and clearly explaining any changes. For instance, I told my kids, “Grandma will be spending some time in the hospital, but Daddy will take you to basketball practice, and I’ll be here to help with homework”.

Sticking to regular schedules provided a sense of stability and helped them feel secure despite the changes happening around them.

Seeking Support

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. Support can come from many places. Our pediatrician recommended a child psychologist who specializes in helping children cope with serious family illnesses. Additionally, many cancer treatment centers offer resources and support groups specifically designed for children. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute advises parents to tap into these resources to help children manage their emotions and understand the situation better.

Activities to Help Cope

Engaging in activities that provide emotional outlets can be very therapeutic for children. We started doing more art projects at home. Drawing and painting became a way for my kids to express their feelings without having to find the right words. Creative activities can be a great way for children to process their emotions. According to, simple tasks like bringing a glass of water or an extra blanket to a loved one can also help children feel involved and less helpless.

Final Thoughts

Talking to children about cancer is undoubtedly challenging, but with honesty, reassurance, and age-appropriate communication, it is possible to help them understand and cope with the situation. By fostering open dialogue and providing emotional support, you can help your children navigate this difficult time with resilience and understanding.

In my own experience, this journey has taught me the importance of patience, honesty, and the power of a supportive community. As parents, our instinct is to protect our children from pain, but shielding them from the truth can sometimes cause more harm than good. Open communication, tailored to their developmental level, and ongoing emotional support are key to helping them cope. Remember, it’s okay not to have all the answers. What matters most is being there for your children and facing the journey together, as a family.

For more detailed advice, resources like the National Cancer Institute, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and offer excellent guidance to help you navigate these conversations.

By Mysa York

Hey, I'm Mysa York, the storyteller behind Cuddle Pixie. With a passion for parenting and a knack for words, I'm here to share tales that warm the heart and inspire. Join me on this journey of cuddles, chaos, and endless love. Welcome to our cozy corner of the internet!

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