Cancer & Parenting - Lets Fuck Cancer


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A guide to

Cancer & Parenting

Parents are multitasking superheroes! But adding a cancer diagnosis can feel like all those plates you’ve been spinning are going to crash down. We’ve partnered with Bright Spot Network to bring you this helpful guide. For more resources for your whole family, including virtual support groups, children’s programming, and more, visit Bright Spot Network’s website.

Having Cancer as a Parent

There’s no sugarcoating it: Parenting with cancer effing sucks. You may feel guilty about not being able to play with your kids the same way you could before cancer, lonely because treatment is taking you away from your family, or you may feel the heartache and fear that accompanies a cancer diagnosis. Whatever is going on for you, know that you are not alone. 

If you need to spend time away from your kids because of surgery or treatment, try one of these ideas to make it a little easier.

  • Give your kids something special to hold onto while you are away, such as a pretty rock, a card, or a photo. They could also give you something special. This will help them feel like they are part of the process and provide you comfort, too. 
  • If you’ll be able to call or talk to them while you’re away, let them know so they can look forward to it.
  • If you can, and you certainly can’t always, before you leave for surgery or treatment, talk to your kids in an honest and age-appropriate way. Tell them what it might be like when you return or give them a job for when you’re back (i.e. rub Dad’s feet or get Mom water).

If you’re tired, don’t feel well, or need a break, parenting from the bed or couch is okay. 

  • Grab crayons and color together.
  • Read together or listen to a podcast.
  • Work on a puzzle.
  • Play 20 questions, eye spy, or create a simple scavenger hunt.
  • Watch a show or movie together.

Whether you’re parenting from the bed or couch, or talking to them from the hospital, you’re the parent your child needs.

Talking to Kids About Cancer

Parents instinctively want to protect their kids, but hiding a cancer diagnosis from children usually does more harm than good. Kids are perceptive and even very young children can pick up on changes in routine, new caregivers, and a parent’s mood. They may overhear hushed conversations and tune in to new words that sound big and scary. With how imaginative children are, think about how they begin to piece these experiences together to build their ideas of what’s happening. It’s almost always bigger and scarier than the truth. By leading the conversation with your child, you can empower them with knowledge and show them that they can trust you.

So, how do you have such a big conversation with such a little human? As you engage in conversations about cancer with children, keep these three guideposts in mind.

1. Be Honest

Being honest with your child helps them learn to trust you, but this doesn’t mean you must tell them everything. Child development spans a wide gap. Always remember your child’s unique development and level of understanding when talking to them about your health.

If you have a young child, state the honest facts in short, understandable statements.

Mom/Dad has cancer. 

They are going to the doctor to get better. 

They are getting a medicine called chemotherapy/radiation. 

The medicine may make Mom/Dad feel sick and tired. 

You can hug and snuggle Mom/Dad all you want, and you will never catch cancer. 

Nothing you did or said caused Mom/Dad to get cancer. 

You can always ask questions about cancer or how Mom/Dad feels.

When talking with younger children, it’s okay to leave out some of the details. This information isn’t necessary for them to understand what is happening and it may confuse or overwhelm them. Older children may ask more detailed questions and you should share more as it feels right. 

2. Stay Open

If you want your child to feel safe coming to you with questions, it’s important to let them know that they can ask you anything or talk to you about how they’re feeling. You can always check in with them if they aren’t coming to you first.

It’s okay if you don’t always have the answers or need time to consider it. As long as your child sees you as reliable and trustworthy, you will continue to build a bond that makes them feel safe and respected. 

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out” is a perfectly acceptable response.

One of the most common questions that kids ask is, “Are you going to die?” Take some time now to think about how you want to answer this honestly, given your situation, keeping in mind that your child may have a range of responses. Many parents say something like, “My cancer was caught early, and the medical team is doing everything they can to make sure the cancer is gone and doesn’t come back.” or, “My cancer may not ever be gone, but I plan to be here a long time, and I have a great team of doctors who are going to help me.” Finding truthful ways to answer difficult questions is important because they will likely come up.

3. Follow Your Kid’s Lead

Start by sharing just the facts and keeping the conversation short. Ask your child what questions they have to gauge their understanding of what you’ve shared and to check if they still want to know more. If they don’t have questions, that’s okay. Some kids will be content just hearing what you say and never asking for more information, while others will have millions of questions. Answer each question as succinctly as possible – adults tend to give more information than necessary – and wait until your child asks for more information before sharing more. You want to give kids just enough information to feel like they understand what is happening, but not so much that they feel overwhelmed. 

You know your kids the best. What works for one family may not be right for yours, and what works for one of your children may not be the best approach for your other kid. Trust your gut and follow their lead.

What to say to your kid about cancer

  • “Cancer is not your fault.” Children are magical thinkers. You need them to know that they did not cause your cancer, no matter how they acted or what they thought. Revisit this over and over, even with older kids. 
  • “Cancer is not contagious.” Kids need to understand that they can hug and snuggle you all they want without being worried about getting cancer themselves. This can be really confusing for children, especially if you are immunocompromised and are talking about them distancing themselves from you so that you don’t catch something from them. Avoid using the word “sick” when describing cancer since it makes kids think of the cold, flu, or COVID-19.
  • “No matter what happens, you will be loved and cared for.” Kids tend to think about how a life event will impact them, especially their day-to-day needs. Tell them who will pick them up from school, take them to practice, and tuck them in at night. While you may not be able to promise that you will be the person to do these things, letting them know that another trusted adult will care for them will ease some of their worries. 
  • “There will be some changes.” This may be the biggest challenge for kids. If you know their routine will change, prepare them. If they will have new caregivers in their life, let them know and ask how this feels for them. Consider using a kid-friendly calendar or chart so your child can easily see what to expect each day. Changes in a parent’s physical appearance can be really upsetting. If you will be losing your hair or having surgery, read books to your child and let them ask questions. 

How to talk to kids about cancer

  • Have big conversations while doing an activity or driving in the car. This helps to put everyone at ease because you don’t have to maintain eye contact and you can divert some energy into the activity. Most people (adults included) tend to do better with conversations involving big emotions when they can simultaneously move their body (basketball, yoga, walking) or use their hands (coloring, molding play-do, playing with a fidget).
  • Avoid euphemisms. When talking about death and dying, avoid phrases like going away, going to sleep, or passing away. They are confusing to young children who are very concrete thinkers. 
  • Unique kids, unique approaches. Every child is different. You may have individual conversations with each of your children depending on their preferred way of learning new information. 
  • Show emotions. It is okay to cry and be mad, sad, or scared. The important thing is to name what you are feeling and show your kid a safe and healthy way of coping with the feeling. If you feel like your emotions are too big to express around your child, find a private space where you can process and identify a trusted person (partner, friend, therapist) who you can talk to. 
  • Consider timing. You know your kid’s best time of day. Make sure their basic needs are met and they are regulated before engaging in a conversation that may trigger big thoughts and emotions. 
  • Expect the unexpected. Your kid may surprise you! They may not have a big reaction or any reaction, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t processing what you said. Many kids will respond to a parent telling them they have cancer by asking something like, “Okay. Can I go play now?” This is often a sign that they need to regulate. Play is their way to work through new information. Give them time before circling back and checking in with them. 
  • Managing your message. If you don’t tell kids about your cancer, someone else will. If you are the one telling your children the truth and maintaining open, honest communication, you can confront any misinformation your children hear outside the home.
  • Wash, rinse, repeat. Telling your kids you have cancer is not a one-and-done conversation. Come back to it occasionally, even if your kids aren’t coming to you. Gauge their understanding of your cancer and how they’re feeling about it on an ongoing basis.

How Will My Kid React?

Most parents want to know, “What does my child understand about cancer?” Kids communicate through their behavior, and our job is to be detectives, which can be challenging. Here’s what to expect at different ages.

Infants and toddlers

They may not understand much of what’s happening, but even babies can sense changes in their environment. If there’s a change in the family system, even little ones can feel it. 


Preschoolers are all about themselves! Their primary lens is “How does this affect me right now?” They have: 

  • a limited scope of understanding 
  • an emphasis on the here and now

Elementary school children

5-10 year olds are starting to broaden their thinking a little bit. They may: 

  • be wondering if they did something to cause your cancer 
  • show an interest in the biological aspects of cancer
  • ask broader questions about what’s happening, including about death

Middle school children 

11-13 year olds are starting to understand more complexities. They may: 

  • have heard about cancer before 
  • think more abstractly or question their belief system 
  • have broader concerns like worrying about the death of a parent or their own cancer risk
  • be inclined to seek support from peers rather than adults


Teenagers understand complexities. They may: 

  • have concerns related to their self-identity and not wanting to feel different from their peers
  • be worried about their own cancer risk or if cancer is genetic
  • be caught between breaking away and needing support 
  • be inclined to seek support from peers rather than adults 
  • hide their feelings to maintain a sense of control 

Remember: You know your child the best. Each child’s developmental path will have a significant impact on how they process, experience, and understand a cancer diagnosis.

How is my child going to react to me having cancer?” 

Keep in mind that every child is unique and will respond differently, but most will exhibit some or all of these behaviors.

  • Experience a range of emotions, including irritability, confusion, fear, sadness, or insecurity. Remember that your kid is the same awesome kid, but they may need help managing their emotions. 
  • Exhibit increased sensory-seeking behaviors, such as thumb sucking, chewing on a shirt or blanket, or touching things (including people or different textures). Consider setting up a quiet corner in your home where your child can go when they are feeling overwhelmed. 
  • Regress. Especially with younger kids, they may return to behaviors you haven’t seen in a while. 
  • Play out scenes of illness. Kids process information through play. If what they’re acting out is not an accurate representation, that’s okay. This is how they process their world. 
  • Repeat questions. They’re seeking reassurance and testing you to ensure the answers stay the same. Consider asking back, “Do you remember what we talked about?” so they start to develop language to reassure themselves. 
  • Act as if nothing is different. This is also a normal response and doesn’t mean they don’t care or love you less. Kids process things in different ways at different times.

Finding help 

All of these behaviors are normal, but if anything feels extreme or ongoing, it may be beneficial to seek professional help for your child. Therapists who specialize in working with kids use play, art, games, and movement to make children feel comfortable. You can also contact a Child Life Specialist at your clinic who has expertise in child development and helping kids cope with big life events. 

Remember that your child has a whole team of people in their corner, including their teacher, school counselor, and any therapists or other outside support they receive. Communicate with those team members about the language you’re using with your child, what questions they’re asking, and how you’re answering. They are here to help!

If Your Cancer Is Terminal

If your cancer is terminal, you will likely be navigating many big thoughts and feelings – both yours and your kids. While it is important to be honest with kids, there is a way to balance hope and reality. For instance, some parents choose to tell their kids something like, “My cancer is never going away, but my medical team is doing everything they can to keep me comfortable and living as long as possible.” 

If your children are young or anxious, you may want to hold back information about death and dying until you physically start to decline. Young children cannot think very far in the future. Once your body begins to slow down and you become more limited in your ability to engage with your children or do the activities they are used to you doing, you can start to talk about death.

When discussing death and dying with children, especially those who are young, it is important to be very specific about what death means: the heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, the body no longer needs to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom. They will need to hear that it is final and that bodies that die never come back to life. You may want to talk about spiritual or religious beliefs relating to what happens after you die, as well as rituals or services that will happen after death. Preparing them for these events and changes will help them understand and start to grieve. It may also aid your grief process to engage in these conversations with your kids. Having your partner, best friend, or another loved one with you during these difficult conversations can also be helpful. 

The ambiguity of living with chronic and advanced cancer is extremely difficult for adults and even more confusing for children. Books may help your children cope with uncertainty, including The Cancer That Wouldn’t Go Away by Hadissa Field and Someone I Love Doesn’t Feel Good by Sara Olsher. You can also try some of these Legacy Projects to create special memories with your family that they can reflect on after you are gone.

If You Are a Partner

If your partner has cancer, your role can be incredibly scary and overwhelming. Suddenly everyone is looking to you to be the steady force: an attentive caregiver, fierce advocate, grounded parent, and masterful communicator.

It is especially difficult to be a caregiver to your partner when you have kids. Not only are you trying to manage your questions and feelings, but those of your kids, too. During times of upheaval and uncertainty, your kids look to you as the healthy parent to be there for them. With your partner out of commission in some capacity, you will likely pick up their parenting routines. 

On top of all of that, you may feel really alone. There is a unique sense of isolation for partners because everyone is directing their support to the person with cancer and it may feel like you have to hold all of your feelings behind a positive, got-it-all-together face.

  • Be gentle with yourself. What you are going through is tough. You will not be able to do it all and you cannot be everything to everyone. That is okay. 
  • Ask for help. There are people out there who desperately want to support you but don’t know how. Give them specific jobs that will free up your time and energy to be with your partner and kids.
  • Make realistic self-care goals. It may feel completely unattainable to get any time to yourself. Consider more realistic ways to carve out small pockets of time to recharge – even a 5-minute walk around the block can be restorative. 
  • Find your people. Whether it’s another caregiver who can relate, a therapist, or a caregiver’s support group, you need a safe place to process and cope with your partner’s cancer.

Resources We Trust

There are tons of resources out there for parents with cancer, but it can be overwhelming to navigate them all. These are our trusted recommendations.

  • Book List: to help you and your kids understand and cope with cancer.
  • Bright Spot Network: Support for parents who have cancer and young children. Programs are open to all families in the U.S., free of charge (most programs are virtual).
  • CancerCare: Information for patients and caregivers, including how to talk with and support kids/teens. Professional Oncology Social Workers are available to speak by phone.
  • Cancer Really Sucks: A monitored online resource and app designed for teens by teens who have loved ones facing cancer.
  • Cancer Support Community: In-person and virtual support for kids, teens, and families. All services are free of charge and open to the whole family.
  • Crossroads4Hope: A Network of Cancer Support: A multidisciplinary team of social workers, child life specialists, public health professionals, and oncology dieticians who work with families at no charge at any point of their cancer journey.
  • Dougy Center: Provides grief support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults, and their families can share their experiences before and after a death. 
  • Hearts Connected: Mental health support to help kids, teens, and caregivers with everyday issues by connecting families and organizations to certified child life specialists all over the U.S. 
  • Heroes Circle/Kids Kicking Cancer: Free therapeutic martial arts program both in-person and virtually for children with cancer, their siblings, and/or kids who have a parent or guardian with cancer.
  • Inheritance of Hope: Resources for young families facing the loss of a parent due to terminal illness.
  • INOVA/Life with Cancer: Free support for families facing cancer. Virtual support for families in the U.S. and in-person support for those in the DC/MD/VA area.
  • Kesem: Free year-round programs and services for children ages 6-18 impacted by a parent/guardian with cancer at any stage or whose parent/guardian died from cancer.
  • Mighty + Bright: Visual schedules tailored for kids affected by cancer and books about cancer and emotions, plus the Raising Resilience Podcast.
  • Pickles: Peer-to-peer support and resources for kids and teens impacted by their parent or guardian’s cancer. 
  • Sharsheret: Free psychosocial support for anyone impacted by breast or ovarian cancer or living with a high diagnostic risk, including children. Their Busy Box kit provides toys and information on discussing cancer with children. 
  • Walk with Sally: Supports children impacted by cancer by providing care-centered one-to-one fellowships and additional free programs and services to uplift the family unit and lessen the burden of cancer.
  • Well Beings Studio: Online resources, expressive activities, and podcasts for kids, teens, parents, and guardians affected by cancer.
  • Wonders & Worries: Free professional support for children and teens who have a parent or caregiver with a severe illness.

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