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How Do You Talk to Your Children About Cancer?

These tips will help parents tell kids about a cancer diagnosis. Knowing how to talk to your children about cancer may be one of the the most difficult parts of being diagnosed.

When my friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, her first thought how she’d tell her family members.

These suggestions for talking to kids about cancer will help you have important, deep discussions about the symptoms, treatments, and side effects of cancer.

A breast cancer diagnosis is scary — but if you focus on how it can change your life in positive ways, telling your kids about cancer may not be as bad as you think.

“My cancer scare changed my life,” says actress Olivia Newton-John. “I’m grateful for every new, healthy day I have. It has helped me prioritize my life.”

Feelings of gratitude, optimism and faith are so important for moms (or any woman) coping with breast cancer. If you are a parent, a major priority is to help your kids deal with cancer. One way to help kids cope are the Kimmie Cares dolls and books, which were created by Kim Goebel when she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.

And, here are several suggestions for telling kids about cancer…

Tips for Talking to Children About Cancer

Who should tell the kids, mom or dad?

“This shouldn’t be a job just for mom,” says Marc Silver, author of of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond. “Dad is going to be the go-to guy during mom’s recuperation from surgery, and during chemotherapy, if it’s needed. If mom is too overcome with emotion, Dad might do a solo act. But the ideal is to have both parents talking with the kids. And yes, they should use the word cancer (if you don’t someone else will) and the word breast (no matter how many giggles it elicits, that’s where the cancer is). ”

Be clear and direct

When you first tell your kids you have cancer, be direct. “Mom/Dad was diagnosed with cancer.” Tell them that not all cancers are alike, and new and better treatments are discovered every day. Stress that you – the parent with cancer – is getting good care and treatment.

Accept anxiety and tension as normal behaviors

“Sometimes the treatments and the diagnosis are stressful and scary, so there may be more tension in the house than usual and there may even be crying,” writes Patricia Kelly in Everyone’s Guide to Cancer Therapy: How Cancer Is Diagnosed, Treated, and Managed Day to Day. “This is normal for such a time.”

Let your kids express their fears, confusion, and anger.

Remember that parents with cancer are role models

How you deal with your diagnosis and treatment will affect how you talk to your kids about cancer and how they deal with it. If you’re having difficulty with the cancer diagnosis, see a counselor or consider attending a cancer therapy support group. If you’re a husband whose wife has breast cancer, it may be helpful to read about how husbands can help wives with breast cancer.

Try nonverbal ways of describing cancer to your kids

The Kimmie Cares dolls have removable hair, which can be replaced with bandanas or very short hair to help kids see the stages of hair loss that comes with cancer treatments. These dolls help both boys and girls understand the changes moms face when dealing with chemotherapy, and can smooth the adjustment to different appearances.

“The most noticeable change in a woman’s appearance is hair loss,” says Lillie Shockney, a registered nurse and administrative director of the Breast Center at the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Canter. “In our society, hair loss often symbolizes having cancer.”

Remind kids that the cancer treatments are temporary

When you’re talking to children about cancer, tell them that the side effects of chemotherapy are temporary. Hair grows back, weight comes back, and energy levels will return! Cancer and chemotherapy treatments aren’t permanent conditions.

Tell your kids that if parents have cancer, children won’t automatically get cancer

According to Everyone’s Guide to Cancer Therapy, most cancers don’t run in families. The type of cancer a parent has isn’t the type that a child will get. When you’re talking to kids about cancer, reassure them that they won’t get sick by being near Mom or Dad.

If you have any questions or thoughts on how to talk to children about cancer, please comment below.

Visit KimmieCares.com for more information about Kim Goebel and the Partners for a Cure Foundation.


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13 thoughts on “How Do You Talk to Your Children About Cancer?”

  1. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen


    Thank you so much for sharing your story — I know your experience will help parents with cancer. It is so important to talk to children about cancer.

    And, thanks for your tips for talking to kids about cancer…they’re very helpful.


  2. My father died of cancer when I was 10. I was told a week before he died that he was sick. That was a stunning change for a 10 year old – in 2 weeks I went from “Dad’s fine” to “Dad’s dead”.

    My parents had known for a year but never said anything. Why? The doctors said not to say anything.

    Everybody had good intentions but not being told changed my life for the next 50 years.

    Talking to your kids is tough. But not talking to them is devastating – to your kids.

    You don’t have to give your kids all the details (this article has good suggestions) but you need to say something.

    35 years after my father died I asked my mother why they hadn’t said anything to my brother and I. She said “the doctors said we shouldn’t”.

    My response – “That was the worst decision you have ever made”.

    Both my mother and wife have had cancer so I have also had to tell my children that news. Telling them was far easier than what I went through as a 10 year old.

    My advice to parents:

    – tell your kids early on but not in detail
    – be positive
    – move on to another topic

  3. Melissa @ hats for cancer

    Thank you very very much for sharing this! I am so grateful.. You have no idea how much I needed to read all of this. Again, my deepest and sincerest gratitude to you.

  4. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Heather, and everyone else who has shared, thank you so much for your thoughts on the Kimmie Dolls! My friend has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she has two young sons. I think I’ll give her the Kimmie Dolls so they have the same experience as Heather’s daughters. Cancer doesn’t have to be so scary for kids, with these dolls.

    Thank you, everyone.

  5. Our Kimmie Doll has been such an asset during this time. My three daughters are so intrigued by this hair loss business that they “can hardly wait” to see Mommy’s transformation. Each day they give my hair a little tug and seem a bit disappointed that it’s still anchored in there! They want to know if they can all have hats and bandannas, too. I have always told them not to make a big drama out of bad hair days so now I have to eat my words and play this cool.

  6. I ordered the Kimmie Cares doll shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2007 and am so grateful that I did. Up until the doll and book arrived in the mail, I was beside myself on how I would explain it to my four year old daughter. Whenever I would bring up the subject, she would quickly change the topic. It wasn’t until I got the doll that she opened up about it and began to understand. In fact, she became so comfortable with my baldness that she was ready to share it with the world (i.e.: asking me to be her show and tell project for her preschool)! THANK YOU, Partners for a Cure and Kim Goebel for this fantastic, much needed creation. Every parent, undergoing chemotherapy, and who have a young child, really ought to have one of these!!!

  7. Here’s some extra info about Kimmie Cares doll and book: they’re available in English and Spanish, with additional languages being printed, and they help women with cancer explain the physical changes and emotions that occur during chemotherapy treatments, particularly hair loss. If you’re talking to kids about cancer, the Kimmie dolls make it easier!

    Kimmie Cares dolls have been embraced by oncologists, nurses and social workers throughout the country as a highly therapeutic and much-needed aid for both mothers and their children. It helps them share their feelings about cancer and calm their fears.

    The dolls are cuddly soft, machine-washable and are available in 5 ethnic varieties (Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native-American.) Each doll comes with two different removable wigs so they can easily be altered to reflect the stages of hair loss and re-growth accompanying chemotherapy treatments.

  8. I am so grateful that someone gave my daughter a Kimmie Doll when I was diagnosed. Kimmie opened up dialog that normally would have been difficult, by giving us a way to present cancer to my daughter in a way that was appropriate for her age of 8. I truly believe that Kimmie helped my daughter have a suprisingly comfortable and healthy outlook on cancer.

    I was especially concerned about how Gabby would respond to my hair loss during chemo and she had seen Kimmie without hair for so long, she was reassuring me about it! Six months out of chemo Gabby has added Kimmie to her collection of dolls and plays with her today.

    We actually used Kimmie to help my friend whose mom was diagnosed… although she had 2 young boys and a doll is a “girl’s toy”, the book and the child friendly visual of the doll with changing hair was really helpful. I would certainly encourage families with young boys to get a Kimmie to help them in the same way.

  9. A loving and brilliant way to present to children a few more of life’s bumps! Dolls are always a gift, just like our lives. Together they aid and assist those suffering through some of life’s more difficult drama while also equipping children to learn the capacity to care for the needs of others, which empowers them through their own sufferings. Giving and caring people, who teach these gifts to others will ultimately form loving community for those in most need.

    Kimmie Care Dolls equip and educate children, even those who may not have an immediate family member in the situation, but with the loving form of a doll they too may learn to generate and facilitate a community of loving arms for others. Life and love is about giving to others. Kimmie Care Dolls do both in a myriad of ways.

  10. I know when my sister was diagnosed, we didn’t know how the kids would be toward her losing her hair and being sick. The Kimmie Doll and book helped break those fears down and the kids were able to talk about it a lot easier.

    I have now made it a point to give the set to anyone I know who is struggling with the disease. It’s my way to give back!

    We don’t always know why cancer hits us but when someone can turn it around and help so many others, you want to do everything you can to help see their purpose through.
    Thanks Kim and God BLess

  11. That’s a great idea – to give a Kimmie Cares doll to a mom diagnosed with cancer! It’ll help her talk about the chemotherapy treatment and side effects with her kids, and perhaps ease that pressure a little.

    I’ve seen the Kimmie dolls (thanks, Julia!) — and they’re gorgeous. It’s kinda fun, too, to play with the hair and bandanas. I can see it being a solid way to show a child what’ll be happening to mommy, without being overly dramatic or sad.

    – Laurie

  12. The Kimmie Cares dolls also makes a wonderful gift for any mom with cancer. It is often very awkward to know what a friend or loved one is diagnosed. The Kimmie Cares doll is a Loving gift that says it all and shows that you are thinking of both mom and her children.
    No need to say a word! These dolls are highly therapeutic and are endorsed by physicians, oncology nurses and psychologists from coast-to-coast.