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Discussing Cancer With Children

Explaining what cancer is to a child can seem like a daunting task; cancer can be a very emotional topic for some, and difficult to understand for others. Here, we have outlined a few tips for describing cancer to children depending on their age.

discussing cancer with children

Child Development At Different Ages:

First, it is important to acknowledge how children understand and interpret things according to their age:

  • 3-5: This is a time of verbal development; they are better able to communicate with those around them. It is also a time of increased imaginary play, and children this age may have a hard time distinguishing fantasy versus reality.
  • 5-9: At this age, children become better at forming relationships with people outside of the family. They still, however, want to be the center of attention and oftentimes will sulk, pout, or feel slighted when they are not.
  • 10-14: Now is the time when those outside relationships become even more important, and can have a bigger influence on their behavior and emotions. They are curious, enjoy learning, and have an easier time doing so because they are able move away from concrete thinking and think more abstractly.


Taking these developmental attributes into account, you can use them to better explain cancer, doctor’s appointments, treatments, and more to your children.


Explaining Cancer To Different Age Groups

These age groups are broken up a little differently, but follow the basic understandings of each age group listed above.



  • Use simple terms to describe cancer: things like sick or ill, but reassure them that it is not like a cold or flu that is easily passed around.
  • Make sure they aren’t fearful of getting it themselves or concerned that they were in any way the cause of someone getting cancer.
  • On the younger side of this age group there is still a lot of fear that drives their thinking and understanding, so be sure to reassure them that symptoms, processes, hospital care, etc. is normal for something like cancer.
  • Because children over the age of 5 tend to form relationships with people outside of the family, it may be a friend, neighbor, school student, etc. that is struggling with cancer whom the child will ask about.



  • At this age children will understand a more detailed explanation of cancer, because they have more experience with learning about the body, and being sick themselves.
  • Children this age may seek out information about cancer on their own; encourage them to share what they find with you so that you can discuss it together. This will help them not worry about any information they may find, and allow you to help them understand the healing and treatment processes better.
  • This age group is better able to feel empathy and may be concerned about their friends or family and their pain. Discuss ways you can be of help to those diagnosed with cancer and have your child help too.



  • This age group will understand the details of cancer and will be interested in the effects, both in everyday life and on the body.
    • They will better recognize, without having to see for themselves, how cancer may affect someone’s daily activities.
  • They will better understand the correlation between cancer and its side effects, and how treatments can help/are necessary.
  • They may be concerned about physical appearance — hair loss, weight gain, etc. Help them come up with ways to make these potential side effects okay, and come up with suggestions on how to make their loved ones feel better about them too.


No matter the age group you are discussing cancer with, be sure to adhere to the following tips:

  • Be open and encouraging in conversation. Allow them to ask questions and encourage them to discuss their thoughts.
  • Be reassuring and understanding of their feelings and fears.
  • Share your feelings about the situation; let them know that you have thoughts, concerns, and emotions too, since you are a big example to them in their lives.
  • Be educated yourself — make sure you have researched specific kinds of cancer and are prepared to answer as many questions as you can.
  • Discuss schedules and treatments, especially if the person that has been diagnosed with cancer is someone who lives in the same house. Let the child know when that person will be gone and how they might be feeling when they come back.
  • Get help from others — hospital workers, therapists, teachers, friends, family, other cancer patients, and survivors.


Describing cancer to a child is never an easy thing to do. But it can be a little bit easier if you understand the different thought processes and developmental stages of a child. Do your research and be calm and helpful rather than overly emotional at the time of discussion.
If you have any other questions about cancer be sure to visit Pasadena CyberKnife for more information.