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Explaining the Diagnosis

Talking to Kids (Ages 15 and Under):

When to tell:

For younger children, wait until you have definitive information on the extent of your illness and an understanding of your treatment. Younger kids might have a plethora of questions when it comes to your illness so, knowing the details will help prepare you with answers. Also, make sure you deliver the news in a comfortable and safe environment for your children. Sharing the news abruptly or out in public might trigger anxiety and make them feel less secure.  

What to say:

Being honest and keeping it simple is best for younger kids. For example, start off the conversation by explaining that you are sick and that the doctors are doing everything possible to help you get better. You don’t need to get into all of the facts right away. Listed below are some tips on how to tell your child you have cancer:

First, four significant factors need to be discussed with younger children, including:

1.      The name of the cancer - such as ovarian cancer

2.      The part of the body where the cancer is found

3.      How it will be treated

4.      How this affects their own lives


  • Don’t be afraid of the word “cancer.” Although it is better to use simpler terms, research suggests that using euphemisms like “boo-boo” or “bad-cells” might confuse children and even cause anxiety.
  • Use outside tools like books recommended by health specialists (see our Resource tab in this section) and dolls to demonstrate specific locations on the body to explain the diagnosis further.
  • Describe whether you’re in pain or not. Saying things like, “mommy doesn’t feel good right now, she needs some rest” will keep them updated on how you’re being affected by the cancer
  • Also, expressing your feelings and emotions in relative terms will give them a better understanding. For instance, saying phrases like, “remember how you felt when your tummy hurt, that’s how mommy feels right now” will allow them to empathize with you.
  • We might emphasize this statement numerous times throughout the page, but it is essential to express hope and eliminate guilt. It is natural for your child to feel upset or guilty about your illness. Make it known that it is not his/her fault and that there is no single cause of cancer.  
  • Younger children also tend to be egocentric and think they are the center of the world. They might ask you questions like, “How is your cancer going to affect me?” It is perfectly reasonable; they are not selfish or hurtful. At a young age, children, developmentally, don’t have the capacity to take perspective.

Talking to Teens (Ages 15-20)

When to tell:

Teens are a little bit more complicated than younger children. Most teenagers have hectic lives juggling physical changes, social schedules, and even experiencing an identity crisis. Discuss your diagnosis with teenagers when you have gathered all of the information about your illness. Teenagers tend to dig a little deeper to understand the situation at hand. It’s important not to sugar coat any of the facts either. If you try to hide any information in an attempt not to worry them, you will worry them even more. Teenagers can pick up on any cues that might tell them otherwise so, be honest. You also might want to consider talking to teens before younger children. This way, teens might be able to assist you when discussing the diagnosis with the entire family.

What to say:

There are different techniques and tips for talking to teens about cancer. Teenagers tend to be going through a lot of physical and emotional changes so, don’t be surprised if your teen reacts to the topic by lashing out or with anger. They are just having a more difficult time expressing their emotions and feelings. With this being said here are a few tips on how to talk to teens about the diagnosis:

  • In addition to the primary subjects listed under younger children, when talking to teens, you should elaborate more on each topic.
  • Teens often want to know the stone-cold facts including things like, what is the recurrence rate, severity of the cancer, the rareness of the cancer.
  • While you do not have to use tools like children books or dolls, you should find other resources that might influence them to venture off and research information on their own.
  • With this in mind, make sure you share with them that there are risks in using the internet on serious topics like cancer. Make sure you tell them that not everything they read online is correct and to come to you with any questions or concerns.
  • Be able to respect your teen’s privacy. Often teens feel the need to seek out other family members for questions and advice because they don’t want to hurt the feelings of their loved ones. Give your teen the option to talk to you when he/she pleases and don’t force any discussion.
  • Sensitivity and consistency are crucial to success. When initially talking about the diagnosis show your teen that you are sensitive to their feelings and that they can always talk to you when they need to.

Talking to Adult Children (Ages 20 and Up)

When to tell:

While adult children have their priorities, they still want to be there to support you. So don’t be intimidated. It is better to discuss your diagnosis with your adult child at the very beginning of finding out about the news. Adult children don’t necessarily need as much information as younger children because they have more knowledge on the subject and more life experience. Adult children are also more likely to feel empathetic.

What to say:

Although adult children might have a lot of responsibilities of their own, it is essential to reach out to them and let them know your thoughts, feelings, and fears. As a parent, you can let your guard down more with adult children than younger children. So really be honest and let them know about your bad days and good days. Here are some tips to discuss when talking about the diagnosis:

  • Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing or expressing too much feeling; adult children tend to be more understanding.
  • Recognize that even though they are older, it still may be incredibly hard for your loved one to talk and that they’re just trying to cope with the situation.
  • Consider changes in your relationship that might bring your family closer and even share your thoughts on how they might take on a caregiver role.
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss arranging additional support with health care decisions and paying bills.
  • If you have trouble understanding medical information or the process ask your adult children for help.
  • It’s okay to rely on them for emotional support when needed.