Sharing the News: Talking to Kids about Cancer

It isn’t unusual for kids to hear about cancer– it comes up in school, on the news, and is even a common plot twist in popular TV shows. But most children never truly experience the word “cancer” unless someone they know or love is diagnosed with the disease.

Depending on the child’s age and relation to the person who has cancer, kids may react to conversations about it in a variety of ways. Some children are more receptive to the news and are able to quickly process what’s next. Others are flooded with fear, anger and shock.

These age-appropriate pointers can be helpful when you need to talk to a child about cancer.


  • Avoid small details. Giving small children too many intricate details that they don’t understand can be confusing.
  • Keep your language simple. Many of the big words associated with cancer won’t make sense to kids.
  • Assure them they cannot catch cancer. Younger children are more likely to associate cancer with other instances of being sick, so they may think the disease is contagious.
  • Stay on point. If your pre-schooler doesn’t have immediate questions, you may be inclined to keep talking after telling them about the diagnosis. Try to avoid this and to focus on answering the questions they ask, and encourage them to come to you if they have more questions later.

Elementary School

  • Start with what they know. If your kids are in elementary school, you might consider beginning your conversation by asking them what they already know about cancer. Depending on their age and what they’ve learned, they might be able to understand a few more “adult” medical terms.
  • It’s not your fault. Kids in elementary school will be the most likely to think they did something to cause their loved one’s disease. Reassure them that this is not the case.
  • Processing may take time. Don’t expect an immediate reaction from kids this age. They are the most likely to ask questions later, after they’ve had time to process the information.


  • Teens tend to have heard something about cancer and its effects, and even may already have a preconceived notion of what it is. Try to begin with what they know so that you can work through the myths of the disease in your conversation.
  • Emotions are normal. Teenagers may react with emotional anger or emotional silence. Don’t be afraid of tears, but see this as a time to bond with them. Sharing that you are also worried but that you know the family will get through it can also show your humanity during a time of fear.
  • Stats and info. Kids this age know how to Google and they will. Be prepared for them to bring statistics and information to you, and be ready to dispel any information that might not be completely true.

Click here for more information about processing and discussing cancer diagnoses and treatment.


Use this discussion guide to prepare for talking with your children about a cancer diagnosis. For more resources, visit our patient resource section.

  • Kids may hear about cancer from a variety of sources, but its first real effect on them usually happens if a loved one is diagnosed. Because of this, it is important to prepare for the conversation.
  • Remember to remain honest and open throughout the conversation. Reassure the child and make them feel comfortable about asking questions when they think of them.
  • Age plays a major role on how a child will react to and process a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. This age-appropriate discussion guide may help you tailor your conversation so they will better understand what is happening and how it affects them.