Cancer Education Featured

How to talk to your children about your cancer

Mother and son

All of a sudden it hits me: I have cancer and now I have to tell my children.

To tell or not to tell

Parents may struggle with the idea of telling their children that mom or dad has cancer. It seems to go against our nature as parents to share upsetting news and usually parents feel reluctant to share the diagnosis because they feel protective about making their children sad and worried. Research and clinical experience tells us children benefit from honest, age-appropriate information about a parents’ cancer. When left without, children fill in the blanks, make assumptions and might not be able to ask questions.

Tips for telling

  • Talk to a friend, family member or counsellor about telling your children. This helps you process your feelings about it before sharing the news with the children and helps you feel more in control.
  • Set aside a time when things are quiet for the whole family to be together and when you are not feeling rushed.
  • Share the diagnosis simply and honestly, using the word cancer.
  • Let them know what to expect in the days or weeks to come and how it might affect them.
  • Encourage them to ask any questions

Supporting them

  • Let their school know and anyone of significance (e.g. coach). Let your child know who has been told so they can reach out when they need to. and so that those people can understand any emotional or behavioural changes they see in your child.
  • Allow each child to process the information in their own way. Some children have many questions and require details while others may simply have one big question and need time alone to sort out the answer.
  • Remember that you are the expert on your own child. Parents often report that although their child showed signs of the cancer impacting their lives, the child reacted in a way that was in keeping with their personality and coping style. If you see a sign that concerns you, reach out for help from professionals at the Odette Cancer Centre or a community support organization like Wellspring Cancer Support Foundation.
  • Help them maintain their routine as much as possible and when this is not possible, try to give them a say in how things change, who will help etc. in order to help them feel more in control.

Supporting you so you can support them

  • Remember, children do better when their parents are managing their own emotional needs.
  • Parenting through cancer, though challenging, is possible and families can even look back with pride about their coping and support for one another.
  • If you are a family coping with cancer, know that there is help and support. You don’t have to do it alone.

Resources available:

Patient and Family Support Program, Odette Cancer Centre, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. This is a free program for patients and their families with services to help you before, during and after your treatment. Visit our Patient & Family Support offices (T-Wing ground floor TG-230, Odette Cancer Centre) 8:00am to 5:00pm 416-480-4623

Wellspring Cancer Support Foundation has launched new programming specifically for parents with cancer and their children. The new Family Programming is being offered at Wellspring Westerkirk House, located on the grounds of Sunnybrook Hospital campus. Wellspring’s Family Programming is designed to support the entire family through this challenging and uncertain time. The program is comprised of three components: A Family Counsellor, Children’s and Parents’ Program and an online guide, When A Parent Has Cancer.

Wellspring is a network of community-based support centres offering programs and services that meet the emotional, social, practical and restorative needs of people living with cancer and those who care for them. Wellspring programs are offered free of charge.

Wellspring Westerkirk House at Sunnybrook
105 Wellness Way
Toronto, ON
M4N 3M5

About the author

Laura Pasqualino, MSW, RSW

Laura Pasqualino, MSW, RSW is a program leader and consultant at Wellspring Cancer Support Foundation. Laura holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Toronto and has over 15 years’ experience in both hospital and community settings. Laura has been in private practice for six years providing counselling and support to individuals with a variety of problems, but has a special interest in eating disorders, medical illness, grief and loss. She blends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and emotion focused therapy for a client-centred approach. Laura is also a consultant for the Wellspring Cancer Support Network where she facilitates many programs ranging from our family programming, pediatric oncology programming, support programs and the Healing Journey.

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