What is cancer?
To answer this question, you can start with the basic make-up of the human body. For example,
“The body is made up of cells. Normally cells are healthy, but sometimes there are unhealthy, abnormal cells that grow and aren’t supposed to be there. This is called cancer.” Once there is a basic understanding of cancer, you can go into detail on what part of the body is affected by the cancer (e.g., lung cancer).
Can I catch cancer?
Many children, even teenagers, think cancer is contagious. Because of this they may choose to distance themselves from the person with cancer. To help children understand, you can explain that cancer is not contagious like a cold or the flu. You cannot catch cancer. You cannot get it from hugging or kissing someone, or sharing their food or drink.
What is chemotherapy/radiation/surgery?
Cancer treatment can often seem like a mystery to children. You may go in for a treatment and come home feeling worse because of the side effects. This can be very confusing for kids. When you talk to your child about treatment, try to include some information on possible side effects the doctor has shared with you. This can help prepare a child for what he or she may see in the future. Here are some possible ways to explain common cancer treatments and side effects: “Chemotherapy is a medicine that attacks cancer cells. Chemotherapy is very strong and can sometimes cause the person taking it to feel sick and tired.” “Radiation therapy attacks cancer cells. It is similar to an x-ray and targets the area with cancer. I cannot feel radiation when it is happening, but it can cause me to feel tired afterwards.” “Surgery is when a doctor will surgically remove an area where cancer is located.” “Sometimes someone with cancer will have one type of treatment, and other times they will have a combination of treatments including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.”
Why are you losing your hair?
Hair loss is one of the most obvious side effects of cancer treatment. Many children think cancer causes hair loss and they don’t understand that it is actually the medicine that causes hair to fall out. One way to explain this is by talking about how the medicine is so strong that it attacks the normal cells at the same time as it attacks the unhealthy, abnormal cancer cells. Hair is made of normal, healthy cells, so sometimes people living with cancer lose their hair. Explain that eventually the hair will grow back (this is often something that children wonder about).
Do people with cancer die? Are you going to die? What is going to happen?
These can be the hardest questions to hear your child ask, and surely the hardest questions to answer. Your answers will depend on your personal cancer experience; however, many find it can be helpful to be hopeful and honest with your responses. Chances are your child will hear that other people have died from cancer, and perhaps they even know someone who has died from cancer. One possible response may be, “People can die from cancer, but many people live. My doctors are doing everything they can to get rid of my cancer. That’s why I am at so many doctors’ appointments and have so many visits to the hospital. Right now they think that the medicine is working, but if that changes, I will let you know.” Children want to know that if there is a change, you won’t keep it from them. Try to update them when it seems appropriate. Children also worry about what will happen to them if their parent dies. They wonder about who will take care of them and their basic needs. It can be very helpful and reassuring to let your child know who would take care of them, and remind them of the people in their life who care for them.