The Top 5 Questions Kids Ask About Cancer, Answered

1. Are you going to die?

Many kids’ first knowledge or experience of cancer is someone they know that died. In Canada, kids are introduced to Terry Fox in Kindergarten, and as inspiring as he was, he ultimately succumbed to the disease. Depending on how old your child is, always start with exploring what they already know about cancer and death. This will give you a point of reference and will help you to explain your situation. Try to avoid metaphors about death and dying, and use correct terms. A deep sleep or going to a better place can be confusing for kids and cause more anxiety. Be honest with them about the fact that you may not know what the future holds, but right now you are being treated and hoping for the best outcome. If this topic is just way too difficult for you to talk about with your child, it might be a good time to ask a loved-one to step in and help you or a professional. Here is a great video on metastatic cancer and more info here:

2. Will I get cancer too?

Kids are extremely self-centred and everything their little minds learn, they try to apply to themselves. Many parent’s instincts are to protect their child and say, “no you won’t get cancer” but the truth is you don’t know that for a fact. What you can say is that cancer is not contagious like a cold or the flu and doctors are working hard to find medicines to help. This is a good opportunity to explain what cancer is in a way your child might understand. Watch the Discovery with your kids here:

3. Why can’t you _____?

  1. Play with me
  2. Pick me up from karate
  3. Grow hair on your eyebrows
  4. Lift me up to the top bunk
  5. Cook me spaghetti with meat sauce

When you are going through cancer treatment there are often changes to your energy levels, your appearance and your role in the family. Feeling ill and tired after chemo may only last for a few days, but to a child it can feel like an eternity when you can’t run around or pick them up from school like you usually do. Being honest about how you are feeling is the best way for kids to understand and identify with the situation. You may want to remind them of when they last had a fever and how they felt lethargic. Then maybe suggest some alternatives to your usual paly. Maybe a quiet board game or watching a movie while snuggling in bed would be a great way to still spend time together. Keeping routines as normal as possible is important, but this is also where other family members and people in the community can play a big role. Just like they say it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village when you are going through cancer and have a family. Friends, relatives and neighbours might be happy to arrange playdates with other kids or do some of the carpooling when you aren’t feeling great. Check out H.E.L.P squad to empower kids to help keep things running smoothly in the family:

4. Why did this happen?

This is a question you may be asking yourself and you may have your own thoughts about why you got cancer. If there is a concrete answer to this question i.e. you carry the BRCA gene and that is a known risk factor, you can explain that. Often there is no answer to this question and this is where you can play the “I don’t know” card. Parents don’t always have all the answers and cancer is complicated. If you do say “I don’t know” you can follow it with BUT ___________.

  1. The doctors are doing everything they can to help me feel better
  2. The medicine I am taking is hopefully going to help
  3. The surgery I just had will hopefully help
  4. I will always be your mom and I love you
  5. We are going to work through this as a family

The list goes on and any reassurance goes a long way. Operation Rescue explains some of the treatment that is helping you to feel better:

5. Will I still get to ______________?

  1. Go to Disney in March
  2. Play Pokemon Go
  3. Get a pet bunny
  4. Keep the Sydney Crosby rookie card Sam gave me
  5. Finish this episode of Scooby Doo

Sometimes when you think you are having a very serious talk with your 8-year-old, you get thrown a curveball of a question, which has nothing to do with cancer or the situation at hand. Your kid’s mind has gone somewhere else and again this is because of their stage of development. It may be the way they are processing things, but they can’t help their self-centred thoughts. Try not to laugh or be offended that they haven’t asked you if you are okay. If you can just go with the flow you will give them the comfort they need to ask questions or discuss their feelings at a later time. Kids process things in non-linear ways and following their lead will make them feel confident and safe.

For more information on talking to kids about cancer check out The Kids Guide to Mommy’s Breast Cancer here and our Talking to Kids about Breast Cancer: A guide for parents here.

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