How to teach kids about cancer—from a Certified Child Life Specialist

Motherly Collective

There’s nothing normal about talking to kids about cancer, but unfortunately, it’s rather common. And just because adults aren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean the kids aren’t thinking or worrying about it. In fact, talking about it can provide them with a sense of relief that they don’t have to make sense of things on their own. 

I am a Certified Child Life Specialist and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has built my entire career on supporting parents and families through difficult conversations, such as cancer—because it’s challenging but necessary. I often meet families who ask how to teach their kids about cancer and whether to use the word at all. Parents naturally want to protect their kids and want to fix things for them. However, when it comes to cancer, avoiding the word can cause more confusion and, perhaps, mistrust.

8 reasons why using the word cancer can help

Cancer is unlike other illnesses in a lot of ways. By using the word cancer and learning more about it, kids can better understand just how different it is and, therefore, feel less scared about it. 

1. Cancer is its own type of illness. It’s different from a cold or flu. Using words like “sick” or “illness” could be confusing. 

2. Cancer is not caused by germs. It’s caused by a problem with the cells. It’s not contagious. 

3. Cancer takes longer to get better and sometimes people don’t get better. Typical remedies alone won’t cure cancer.

4. Cancer requires some treatment at a hospital or clinic. It’s not an illness that can be cared for at home alone. 

5. Every cancer experience is different. From type to treatment to symptoms to outcomes. 

6. Just because you don’t use the word cancer, doesn’t mean other people won’t. Kids need consistent information from their trusted adults. 

7. Using the word cancer can help give context and consistency to subsequent conversations such as treatment changes or side effects. 

8. Cancer can feel like a scarier word than it is. Adults help make it less scary by explaining it in an age-appropriate honest way. Avoiding it can make it scarier.

So how do you teach your kids about cancer?

Start with what they already know 

When you’re getting ready to introduce the topic of cancer, start by asking about what they already know or understand. You might mention a hospitalization, medications or symptoms. 

Examples: “Remember how _____ spent some time in the hospital?” or “Have you noticed that ______ takes medicine?” or “I know you’ve mentioned that ______ is tired sometimes. Do you know why that is?” Pause and give them time to reflect and answer. This will help you better understand what they already know and understand and prepare to clarify some potential misconceptions about what is going on.

Give a warning 

Let them know what’s coming next in an age-appropriate way. This allows the child to tune in differently to what they’re about to hear. “I wanted to give you more information about what’s going on and about some changes that could happen.” 

Provide an honest, age-appropriate version of the truth 

Plan the conversation around an age-appropriate version of the truth. Start by building on what they know  then, name the problem with the cells.

Example:  “______ spent time in the hospital because they had symptoms. They discovered that _______ has cancer cells in their body. They aren’t supposed to be there and they’re causing problems. So, they’re going to work on getting rid of them.”

Use The Dot Method © 

Once you’ve introduced the topic, you can incorporate books, play and hands-on-resources. The Dot Method is an interactive tool to further teach, explain and process cancer. They will then be more prepared to see the word cancer written in the workbook and know what topic to expect throughout. “I have a special workbook that you can use to learn more about cancer, treatment and what to expect. We can work on it together!”

Keep in mind that this is not a one-time conversation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Consider this conversation as opening the lines of communication and setting the stage for subsequent conversations along the way. 

• Time your conversations around big changes or updates.

• Create space for questions as they arise. 

• Validate and normalize feelings and practice coping skills. 

If you don’t feel comfortable using the word cancer, start by talking about the cells instead. Consider using the name of the cancer, broken cells, sick cells, or bad cells, to help kids understand that cancer is a different kind of sick. 

Remember, when you can’t control your child being impacted by cancer, take control over how you talk to them about it and how supported they feel. Afterall, a parents’ job isn’t to protect their kids from hard things—it’s to support them when they face hard things.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother’s journey is unique. By amplifying each mother’s experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you’re interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.

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