How do we tell the kids I have cancer?

Before having these hard conversations, take some time to plan what to say.

telling kids parent cancer

Telling children that a parent has cancer is one of the most difficult things a newly diagnosed parent must face. There's no one or "right" way to have this conversation. Every family copes with life's challenges uniquely.

As a two-time cancer survivor, wife and mom of three children, here is what learned about telling the kids about a parent's cancer diagnosis, based on my experiences.

At first blush, a parent's instinct may be to avoid telling the children in order to protect them. My parents never told me that I had cancer when I was a teenager diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease as it was called then; it left me bewildered every time I had radiation therapy in a hospital filled with very sick children. So, when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, my husband and I decided that we would tell them when we had all of the relevant information—diagnosis, treatment plan, prognosis—so that we would be on the same page and could deal with the news together.

My children were ages 19, 15 and 10 at the time—a freshman in college, a freshman in high school and a fifth-grader. Despite our best intentions, it didn't work out as I'd hoped; our college-aged daughter felt betrayed and hurt when my husband told her that I had breast cancer when I was one hundred miles away from home at a swim meet with my high school son.

In retrospect, my plan to share the information at one time made a difficult and stressful time much harder. In fact, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, parents should consider sharing the information with children in multiple, brief conversations to allow them to digest the information. If I had it to do over again, instead of trying to control the narrative, I would have shared the information as I received it, particularly with my college-aged daughter and teenage son.

It may be hard to keep cancer a secret. Once treatment begins, children will see the side effects. But even before cancer manifests itself physically, children, and particularly teens, know when secrets are being kept. They'll pick up on their parents' worry, anxiety and hushed voices and wonder what is being kept from them. Understandably then, kids might believe that whatever is happening is too awful to talk about, which in turn might make them feel isolated from the very people who are supposed to care for them.

Another concern is what happens if children hear about your diagnoses from someone else, by mistake. A classmate or a neighbor might say something, not knowing that the news hasn't been shared. The children may then find themselves in the bewildering space of not knowing what to believe.

Before having these painful and hard conversations, take some time to plan what to say. Talk to a spouse, partner, therapist, a health care professional, or member of your faith community. Consider writing down important points so you can pay attention to your children's reactions.

Know that there may some difficult questions to answer from your children— for example, be prepared for your children to ask whether you will die. It was the first question my younger son asked. In response, I explained that my cancer was caught early, that I would have surgery and chemotherapy to get better, and that I had great doctors taking care of me. Also, don't be afraid of being emotional—it may help the children to process their own feelings. It's okay to cry together.

How much information to share depends on the children's ages. Parents know their children the best and what works for one family may not work for another. However, according to the American Cancer Society, at a minimum, children should be told the following:

  • The name of the cancer (e.g. breast cancer, lung cancer, lymphoma)
  • The location of the cancer in the body
  • The type of treatment
  • A simple explanation of side effects
  • How their lives might be affected

When naming the cancer, it may be helpful to use a doll, stuffed animal or drawing to show or where the cancer is. For older children and teens, parents also may want to explain what cancer is—a family of diseases caused by abnormal cells that divide rapidly and over time can grow into tumors—and how it's treated—typically with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Being honest about the day-to-day impact that treatment will have on children's lives also is essential.

Children need to know that the parent might be away from home for several hours a day for chemo or radiation therapy or may be hospitalized. The parent may be too tired to cook, attend school events or may need more help with household chores. The parent might lose his or her hair or experience weight changes. Teens, in particular, might worry about how their parent may look once treatment starts and become apprehensive about "being seen" with their sick parent. The first question my teenage son asked me was whether I'd lose my hair. I told him I would, but that I'd wear a wig or baseball cap whenever I was out of the house.

Parents need to give their children time to absorb and process this news and therefore should be prepared to have more than one cancer conversation. Keep the lines of communication open and encourage children to ask questions and share their concerns. If parents don't know the answer to their children's questions, tell them that and follow-up later with an explanation.

Finally, parents should assure their children that cancer isn't contagious and let them know that it's okay to hug and show affection for each other. Tell the children that they didn't cause the parent's cancer—it's not their fault—and that the family will work through this time together.

And above all else, remind children and teens that they are now and always loved. Cancer will never change that.

In This Article

    14 toys that will keep your kids entertained inside *and* outside

    They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

    With fall in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in outside-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

    From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

    Wooden doll stroller

    Janod wooden doll stroller

    Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.


    Detective set

    Plan Toys detective set

    This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.


    Sand play set

    Plan Toys sand set

    Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.


    Water play set

    Plan Toys water play set

    Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.


    Mini golf set

    Plan Toys mini golf set

    Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.


    Vintage scooter balance bike

    Janod retro scooter balance bike

    Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.


    Wooden rocking pegasus

    plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

    Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.


    Croquet set

    Plan Toys croquet set

    The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.


    Wooden digital camera

    fathers factory wooden digital camera

    Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.


    Wooden bulldozer toy

    plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

    Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.


    Pull-along hippo

    janod toys pull along hippo toy

    There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.


    Baby forest fox ride-on

    janod toys baby fox ride on

    Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.


    Balance board

    Plan Toys balance board

    Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!


    Meadow ring toss game

    Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

    Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.


    We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


    Every week, we stock the Motherly Shop with innovative and fresh products from brands we feel good about. We want to be certain you don't miss anything, so to keep you in the loop, we're providing a cheat sheet.

    So, what's new this week?

    Rae Wellness: Essential daily supplements to help you shine from the inside out

    Rae Wellness is a women-led company with the belief that nurturing your mind and body isn't just essential—it's your power. Their collection of daily supplements leverage vegan, non-gmo, high quality ingredients to help you "shine from the inside out." With formulas to designed to fuel your calm, sleep, energy and more, consider them your daily dose of self care, mama. Even better, 5% of every purchase goes directly to Girls. Inc., the non-profit organization that inspires girls to be strong, smart and bold through direct service and advocacy.

    Beyond Yoga: Luxuriously soft athleisure you'll want to wear 24/7

    Whether you're lounging or lunging, the butter-soft activewear from Beyond Yoga is designed to support women to live fully and confidently. Their thoughtful, California made pieces are crafted with every woman's shape in mind, complementing curves and laying comfortably on all body types.

    The Dairy Fairy: Feminine, functional intimates for nursing and pumping mamas

    As any mama who has wrestled herself into a less than sexy, over-the-top utilitarian nursing bra knows, it can be quite the demoralizing experience. Add to that the annoyance of having to switch out to a completely different contraption in order to pump hands-free, and it's even more of a let down (pun not necessarily intended.) Frustrated by this all-to-universal dance, founder Emily Ironi made it her mission to create an all-in-one bra that not only works for moms, but celebrates them. Her line of pretty, feminine intimates for nursing and pumping combine function with aesthetics to keep you looking and feeling your best as you rock new motherhood.

    Milkful: The Dairy Fairy's size inclusive sister company

    Part of the Dairy Fairy's mission was to create a line of nursing and pumping bras that would make women feel comfortable and confident. Since launching in 2012, Emily heard from many women of different shapes and sizes, asking, "why doesn't this come in my size?" Adding sizes to the line didn't quite feel like enough. Instead, she set out to create an entirely new way to support their specific needs during such an important time in their lives. Thus, Milkful's line of size inclusive nursing and pumping intimates was born.

    Not sure where to start? Here's what we're adding to our cart:

    Keep reading Show less

    29 last-minute family Halloween costumes you can pull together NOW

    If your little one is going as a lion, coordinating is as easy as breaking out the khaki!

    Here's how Halloween unfolds in most households I know: Mom spends weeks—even months—planning the perfect costumes for little ones. Then Halloween creeps up and they realize they need an outfit to coordinate with the kids' get-ups. What's a mom to do?!

    Thankfully, there's no need for fear or pressure: There are so many ideas for parents that are easy to make and still super clever.

    Keep reading Show less