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Parenting and Cancer

Parenting is tough enough without adding cancer into the mix. While there's no single formula that can make parenting through cancer easy; there are some practical tools, strategies, resources and services that can help.

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Parenting is hard enough at the best of times, let alone when you're dealing with cancer. You might worry about how to talk to your kids about your illness but children want to be informed and involved. When you chat to them, you're able to help them understand the situation better. Here we explore the benefits of talking to kids about cancer, how to tackle the topic and share other helpful resources

Parenting is tough enough without adding cancer into the mix. While there's no single formula that can make parenting through cancer easy; there are some practical tools, strategies, resources and services that can help.

There's evidence to suggest that children always know that something is wrong when a parent has cancer. Children as young as three have a sense of something being different and that there have been changes in the parent and within the family.

What do children know about cancer?

  • Children often overhear things, such as phone conversations
  • Children can see changes in the parent with cancer
  • Cancer and treatment often disrupts normal routines
  • When a parent is having treatment, children may be cared for by other people, such as grandparents
  • Children pick up on changes in emotions around them and are conscious of distress in adults

There is no evidence that talking to children about cancer is harmful. Being aware that something is wrong, but not knowing why can be confusing and distressing for children. Being open and honest with children about cancer is beneficial. When a parent is unwell, the findings from the research is that children want to be informed and involved:

  • Children want to have as much information as possible about what is happening
  • Children want to feel involved in caring for their sick parent

Why talking to children about cancer is important

By not talking to your children yourself, you have no control over what information the children receive and their understanding of the situation. Children:

  • Often have ‘magical thinking’, which mean that they can catastrophise and imagine that the situation is worse than it actually is
  • Can blame themselves and assume that changes in the parent are the result of something they have done, such as being naughty
  • Will worry about the future and what will happen to them
  • Will worry about the welfare of the ‘well’ parent and whether they will become unwell too
  • May worry that the sick parent does not love them anymore
  • May receive incorrect and frightening information about cancer elsewhere
  • Can feel excluded and this can affect their relationship with their parents

The benefits of talking to children about cancer

Talking to your children about cancer is beneficial, but possibly one of the most difficult things a parent ever has to do:

  • It provides reassurance that the child is loved
  • It provides reassurance that they will still be looked after and do the things that they like doing
  • They will be reassured that the illness is not catching and that the other parent or carer will not get ill
  • It reassures children that they will not get cancer themselves and can prevent any other misconceptions about cancer
  • It will help the child feel more involved in caring for the sick parent
  • It provides preparation for the possibility that the situation may get worse

Broaching the subject of cancer with children can be difficult and as a parent, you will instinctively know what will work best with your children. However, these tips may be helpful:

  • Start by asking the child for their understanding of what is happening. You may be surprised that the child knows more than you thought
  • Ask the child what they know about cancer
  • Try not to use euphemisms and use the word cancer at least once in the conversation
  • It might be helpful to explain the cancer as a lump but ensure that the word cancer is used in the explanation
  • Provide reassurance that the child is loved and will always be loved by the parent with cancer
  • Provide reassurance about what will stay the same and that the child will always be cared for
  • Reassure the child that they cannot catch cancer and that they can still be physically close with the parent
  • Becoming emotional when talking to children is not problematic, it gives children permission to be upset too and alerts them to the seriousness of the situation
  • Do not be concerned if the child seems not to have understood – younger children may require the information to be repeated on several occasions
  • Children often need a break from strong emotions – allowing the child to go and play may provide a break and can give the child time to absorb the information
  • Try to be as honest as possible and not give false hope
  • Provide simple suggestions about how the child can be involved in caring for the parent with cancer
  • Encourage questions and try to be as honest as possible in your answers
  • Encourage open communication and reassure the children that they can come back for more information at any time

Helpful resources



Mummy's Star is the only charity in the UK and Ireland with the aim of 'supporting pregnancy through cancer and beyond'. They offer emotional support including a named Information and Support Worker and regular check-ins to see how you are.

Fruit Fly Collective is a group of scientists and artists who work together to help children, adults and families understand challenging scientific and health-related ideas, including families who are affected by cancer by increasing both the child's and their carer's understanding of the disease.

The Osborne Trust offers free emotional and practical support for children of a parent with a cancer diagnosis and undergoing cancer treatment. Help is offered freely to children aged 16 years and younger with a parent with any type of cancer all over the UK.

Riprap was developed especially for teenagers who have a parent with cancer. In Riprap, you can learn more about cancer and its treatment and through real stories, you can read the experiences of other young people and share your own story.

Trekstock Talks

Check out our Trekstock Talks on parenting with cancer:

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