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Talking to Children About Cancer

Southeast Radiation Oncology Center - Friday, December 22, 2017

Covering A Difficult Topic With Different Age Groups

A child’s mind is constantly evolving as they grow older, shaping how they view themselves and the world around them. During this time of development, introducing a complex topic like cancer can be very challenging, so it’s important to structure the discussion around their age group and how they absorb and handle that kind of information. The cancer care experts at Southeast Radiation Oncology Center are here to help, so we put together a guide on how to discuss cancer with children of different age groups.

Early Childhood: Ages 3 - 7

When a child is between the ages of three and five, their verbal skills are in the early stages, as they try to get a better grasp on communication and the difference between what is real and what is fantasy. Once kids hit age six and seven, they have a better grasp on communication, but tend to have difficulty thinking about things beyond themselves.

The key to communicating with this age group is keeping the discussion simple, while making sure to connect everything back to the child. They may not understand why you are discussing cancer with them right away, and start trying to connect it to themselves. One common concern is that they think they are the cause of the cancer, so make sure to reassure them that they are not. Finally, because their experience with illness may be limited to things like a cold or flu, let them know that cancer is not contagious to help quell any potential fears they may have.

Late Childhood: Ages 8 - 12

Between the ages of eight and nine, children are beginning to value relationships with others, and are becoming more acclimated to the idea that they don’t always have to be the center of attention. By the time they are ten or twelve, they develop a greater interest in things beyond themselves, such as other people or the pursuit of knowledge.

When approaching this age group, understand that they can handle a more detailed explanation of cancer, and have a general curiosity about about the illness works. Don’t be surprised if they start to look for information on their own, and be prepared to answer questions. Often, kids can find information that may scare them during their research, so make sure you do your best to reassure them that you are in good hands with your care team.

Teenager: Ages 13 - 19

As children become teenagers, they become very in tune with their emotions and are able to empathize with wide variety of individuals. In their mid to late teenage years, their curiosity continues to grow, as well as their ability to see things realistically from varying perspectives.

When discussing cancer with teenagers, you can frame the conversation similar to how you would with an adult, as they will be able to easily understand the concept of the illness, the effects on the body, how it affects the life of the patient, and why treatment is necessary. The main difference that you may notice is the projection of their own values onto the situation. For example, many teens will be more concerned about things that affect physical appearance during treatment, such as hair loss or weight gain, since these issues are important to them around this age. It’s important to reassure them that the side effects are expected, and instead of worrying, they should work to provide their loved ones with support and encouragement.

Important Tips For All Age Groups

Regardless of age group, cancer is a complex and emotional topic, so below are some important things that you should keep in mind any time you’re talking about cancer.

  • Be Open - Having kids share their thoughts and ask questions will help deepen their understanding of the topic.
  • Be Understanding - Even if their fear or concern may seem unreasonable, remember that it may be due to their inexperience with illness or inability to grasp this difficult concept. Be accepting and reassuring of how they feel.
  • Educate Yourself - By doing your own research to expand your knowledge on the topic, you will be more prepared to answer any questions that may come your way.
  • Get Help From Others - It’s okay to not know the answer. Medical staff and loved ones can support you and often provide that answers you need.
  • Provide Updates - Children who live in the same household as a patient will notice a big change during treatment. Explain to the child why the patient is leaving the house regularly, and let them know how they may feel when they come back from treatment. Regular updates will allow them to continuously process the situation at their own pace.

Contact Your Local Cancer Treatment Center!

If you have any questions or concerns when it comes to talking to children about cancer, just contact us at Southeast Radiation Oncology Center here in Juneau, AK. We offer professional radiation cancer therapy, while also functioning as an information resource that you can turn to for knowledge on various cancer condition and expert advice. We’ve worked with countless families in their battle against cancer, so just reach out to us and we can help guide you through this challenging time.


At Southeast Radiation Oncology Center, we know that cancer patients are best served by being treated in close proximity to a support network of family and friends. We offer patients in Southeast Alaska the ability to receive state-of-the-art radiation therapy without the burden of traveling great distances away from home.The information presented on this website is provided to allow our patients to gain more knowledge about our center, our staff, and our services.