Explaining Cancer to Children: Specific cancers

Many parents wonder how to explain different types of cancer to very young children.  Can a four-year-old understand cells in the breast or lungs or bones?  What words do you use to describe leukemia or lymphoma to a five year old?  How about private body parts, like ovaries or prostate; should you use those terms with very young children?

It is important to recognize that between the ages of two and six, children gain a great deal of knowledge about the human body.  They learn many of the external parts of the body, and some of the internal structures.

It is also important to respect that each parent will make their own decisions about how and when to teach their child about the human body.  Some parents use specific terminology and some use euphemisms.  Some parents teach these lessons at a very young age, and some prefer to wait until a child is older. There is no absolute right or wrong way to do this, and the style and preference of the parents should always be honored.

We have already discussed how to explain cancer in the section “Explaining Cancer to Children.”  Now, a parent must decide whether to be specific about the type of cancer when talking to their preschool age child about an adult’s illness.

The decision about describing the specific cancer first depends on your child’s language and cognitive development.  If your child is not ready to understand such information, there is really no need to try to rush to provide the facts.

With preschoolers, it is not intrinsically important to differentiate the type of cancer a parent faces.  Preschoolers don’t get angry or feel left out when they don’t know the specifics of a cancer diagnosis.  Preschoolers do not yet need family health information to make healthy lifestyle choices later in life.

However, if the child is old enough and mature enough to understand, it can be valuable for the child to know where a cancer is located.  This knowledge will give the child the ability to answer questions from others, and understand conversations he or she might overhear.

It will also make it easier for the child to understand that certain parts of the adult’s body may need to be protected.  Finally, it may help to reduce fears that a preschooler might develop about their own bodies and/or health, to understand a bit more specifically where the cancer is located in their parent or grandparent.

Ultimately, the decision to help a young child understand the specifics of a cancer diagnosis depends on the parent’s comfort level and the child’s readiness.  This decision can be reevaluated on an ongoing basis.  As your child matures, you can always provide more detailed information.