Advice for Parents With Cancer

When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, it not only affects the patient, it affects the entire family. Newly diagnosed parents have lots of questions and concerns: Should I tell my children about my cancer? How much should I tell them? Is there a right way to present the information?

Martha Aschenbrenner, a counselor with MD Anderson's Supportive Care Program, works with patients and families to find age-appropriate ways to communicate about a parent’s diagnosis and treatment. For more information on how to discuss a diagnosis with your child and specific advice for each age group, check out Aschenbrenner's comprehensive guide (PDF).

The following are some tips for parents to consider when discussing cancer with their children. 

Start the conversation by remembering the three “C”s: 

  • The illness is called cancer.
  • It is not catchy/contagious.
  • It is not caused by anything the child did or did not do.

Be specific to avoid misunderstandings.

Don’t just refer to the parent as “sick.” The child will notice changes in the parent’s physical activity, appearance, etc. and may associate anyone who is “sick” as having what their parent has. Also, when children are left uninformed, their imaginations tend to run and create additional misconceptions. Use specific terms when describing a parent’s diagnosis.

Manage expectations.

Cancer will often change a family’s regular routine. Inform children about upcoming doctor appointments and treatment schedules. Let them know ahead of time whether additional friends or family will be helping (such as giving rides, preparing meals, etc.). Reassure children that whenever possible, their routine won’t change any more than necessary. Remind them that school is still their number one priority so that they have something to focus on instead of worrying about the parent.

Inform the school.

Children spend the majority of their time at school, and teachers are often the first to notice any behavior changes. By keeping everyone informed, teachers can work with families to make sure the child stays on track and offer additional support when needed.

Give honest information even if a parent’s condition worsens.

Younger children may ask a newly diagnosed parent if he/she is going to die from cancer. Parents shouldn’t make promises but instead say it is their plan not to. In the case that a parent’s condition worsens and they may not get better, children should still be informed and prepared.

Seek support.

Aside from family and friends, there are resources available for families facing cancer. At MD Anderson, children have access to the CLIMB® Program. Developed by the Children’s Treehouse Foundation, this 6-week peer support program is led by specially trained facilitators who help children and teens express themselves and cope with their parent’s disease.

Request an Appointment U.S. News & World Report badge