Talking about cancer


When you have cancer, your family and friends may feel shocked, sad, depressed, or angry. They want to help but may not know how. Or you may not know how to tell your doctor and care team what you need.

No two people react the same way. Families usually learn to overcome their problems because cancer causes them to look at their values and adjust their priorities. Keeping the lines of communication open with family, friends, and your care team can help everyone during this stressful time.

Tell your family the truth

You may not feel like telling your children or other family members that you have cancer. You may want to protect them from worrying and emotional pain, but they will probably sense that something's wrong anyway.

Talking to young children

Man with grandchildIf you have children, you may wonder how to tell them about your cancer, especially if they're young. Children imagine the worst, so it's best to be truthful, and let them know that you're sick and that doctors are working to make you better.

It's okay to admit that you're afraid or to cry in front of your children. Being true to your feelings can help your children be true to theirs.

Try to pick a place and time to talk when you and your children are relaxed, and ask another person to be there to help you. Give your children time to ask questions and express their feelings. If you need help talking to your children about cancer, consider asking a counselor or your doctor for guidance.

  • To help your children understand, tell them the name of your cancer and the part of your body it's in. Make it clear that your children didn't do anything to make you sick. Tell them that cancer can't be passed from one person to another.
  • Young children may focus on how your illness will affect them. This is normal. Tell your children that you'll make sure someone will always take care of them.

Let other adults in your children's lives know about your cancer. This may include teachers and coaches. Encourage your children to talk to others about their feelings. Find resources for talking to children about cancer.Kaiser Permanente is not responsible for the content or policies of external Internet sites, or mobile apps.

Talking with teenagers

Teen boyYou may need to have ongoing discussions with your teens about your cancer, because learning that a parent has cancer may make it hard for them to express their feelings.

Some teens may act out or get into trouble because they're upset. Others may become clingy, so be on the lookout for changes in their behavior or signs of depression. Let your teens know that it's normal to feel sad and angry.

  • Tell your teens the type of cancer you have and help them learn more about it. Explain what kind of treatment you'll have.
  • Explain to your teens that many people with cancer go on to live cancer-free after treatment.

Be honest, and answer your teens' questions as well as you can. Encourage them to talk to other adults and to spend time with their friends. Find resources for talking to teens about cancer.Kaiser Permanente is not responsible for the content or policies of external Internet sites, or mobile apps.

Talking to adult children

Make the most of your time with your children, and share your feelings.

If you need your children's help, ask for it. This may be difficult for you, especially when you've been their primary support, but giving them specific tasks to do can help ease their frustration, make them feel useful, and help them to feel better by helping you.

Dealing with changes in your family

Woman with a red umbrellaWhile you're worrying about money, your family duties, and where you fit in the family, your family members are also dealing with their own emotions, too. Be prepared for role changes in your family.

  • Parents may look to their children for support or be more dependent on other family members.
  • Some family members may need to work outside the home or work different hours to deal with the changing needs of the household.
  • Young children may suddenly begin to act less mature out of stress. This is their way of dealing with what has changed in their family.
  • Some older children may need extra support, while some teens may rebel and spend more time away from home. Other teens may take on new duties to help the family.

If your children are having trouble coping, you may want to find a counselor or support group to help them.

Reviewed by Kaiser Permanente in 2018

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