What To Say When Your Kid Asks, “What Is Cancer?”

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It’s a startling statistic, but 1 in 3 people living in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Unfortunately, this means that someone in your family’s orbit — you or your partner, a playmate’s dad, a neighbor down the street — may be facing a diagnosis, or will at some point. And your kids will likely have questions.

Talking to your kids about cancer (and teaching them empathy in the process) doesn’t have to focus on discussions that are sad, scary, or difficult. Many cancers are treatable, and there are countless inspiring survivorship stories you can lean on when approaching this topic. Not to mention, new developments in the prevention, early detection, treatment, and survivorship of cancer are made every single day. Thanks to many scientists and devoted donors, organizations like the American Cancer Society are providing vital resources to people facing cancer, and helping to save millions of lives by funding cancer research.

In other words, conversations about cancer with your kids can be hopeful and encouraging.

To help you prepare for their questions, we’ve provided a few responses you can use to offer reassurance, comfort, and support. Remember: They’ll be paying close attention to how you feel, so starting these conversations in a calm and collected headspace will go a long way.

If they ask you what’s going on:

First, consider their age. Kids eight years old or younger will need less information than those nine to 12 years old and teenagers. Regardless, when a child asks “What is cancer?” or “What does having cancer mean?” tell the truth in a way that they can understand.

A safe place to start is with the following basic info, which is appropriate for children of all ages:

  1. The name of the cancer (for instance, breast cancer or lymphoma)
  2. The part of the body where the cancer is (lungs, heart, blood)
  3. How it will be treated and for how long (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation)
  4. How their own lives will be affected (a parent will be sick, they’ll have a substitute teacher, etc.)

Once the basics are covered, you can gauge their reaction and address follow up questions — but this gives them an understanding of the situation, which in itself can be comforting.

If they ask you why it’s happening:

Children often blame themselves for bad outcomes, even ones that are out of their control, like a cancer diagnosis. They might think that something they did or didn’t do caused the cancer to happen, and that can be distressing. Similarly, teens often assume guilt for the cancer, and might be thinking that they took their parent or loved one for granted, and the cancer is a punishment. You’ll want to dispel this notion early in your conversation.

So, when your child asks you why this is happening, be clear that this isn’t their fault. You can say something like: “No one can cause another person to get cancer; none of us made this happen.” From there, you can explain that this just happens to people sometimes and it’s awful, but you’re in this together and you’re there to support them.


If they ask if the person with cancer is going to die:

This question can be painful to hear, but it inevitably comes up in every parent-child conversation about cancer. Kids value consistency, reliability, and closeness, so naturally, they fear losing those closest to them.

Your response will depend on a lot of factors, including who has the cancer, the type of cancer and its stage, treatment options, and the doctor’s prognosis. It’s up to you how much you want to share at that moment, but you want your focus to be on:

  • Comforting your child, making them feel supported through words and the fulfillment of their needs (whether that’s affection or alone time/space)
  • Reaffirming your love for them and telling them they aren’t alone
  • Reassuring that you will be honest with them throughout the process
  • Reminding them that they are safe, and they can always express their feelings to you

Here are a few examples of how you can respond to this question from parents who have done so themselves.

  • The doctors have told me that my chances of being cured are very good. I’m going to believe that until I have reason to believe something else. I hope you can believe that too. I’ll tell you if I find out anything new or different.
  • There’s not a lot known about the kind of cancer I have. But I’m going to give it my best shot and do everything I can to get well.
  • My cancer is a hard one to treat, but I’m going to do everything I can to get better. No one can know right now what will happen down the road. What you can be sure of is that I’ll be honest with you about what’s going on. If you can’t stop worrying, please tell me so that we can work on that together.

If they ask what they can do:

Once your child has a handle on what’s going on, they might ask how they can help. If you or your partner are diagnosed with cancer, there may be small tasks around the house that your kids can do that would make your lives easier. Children like to feel helpful, and by letting them assist you, you’ll give them a sense of control, which can be comforting.

Another way to foster that feeling is by making a donation in their name or your family’s name to the American Cancer Society. Not only will this make your child feel like they’re positively contributing, but you’ll also be able to tell them that they’re helping ACS lead the fight for a world without cancer. The life-saving research ACS funds and services they provide wouldn’t be possible without support from kind and generous people who make it all happen with donations.

There’s no question that talking to your kids about cancer can be difficult. That said, your interest in figuring out the best way to have these discussions bodes well for your kids. Being willing to talk about cancer is an act of bravery, and, even if they don’t express it, they’ll admire your honesty and strength.

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