Explaining Cancer to Kids

In our cancer book for kids, Someone I Love is Sick: Helping Very Young Children Cope with Cancer in the Family, we have already encouraged you to utilize the word cancer when explaining cancer to kids. In the targeted age range (2-6) for this book, only the oldest or most mature children will need more information specifically on what cancer is. Many children are satisfied simply hearing that cancer is an illness or sickness. Most children have an adequate frame of reference for “being sick.”  It is O.K. to tell very young children that cancer is a kind of boo-boo, but be careful to distinguish cancer from other injuries and illnesses that your child might identify with the term boo-boo.

However, if your child asks for more information on cancer, your responses need to take into consideration your child’s age and experience. Keep it simple! Remember, children in this age group are not asking for complex, technical explanations and cannot understand the concept of cells changing in the body.

Therefore, a solid tumor cancer can simply be explained at a sickness that causes a lump or growth in the body that should not be there.  A blood born cancer can be explained as something wrong in the blood or the insides of the bone. Children mostly need to understand that cancer is a different disease than those with which they are already familiar. Of course, it is equally important for children to understand that they cannot catch cancer in the same way that they catch colds.

Since you are the expert on your child, you will know of any other information or exposure your child may have had related to other illnesses and diseases. If that exposure has given your child a knowledge base to better understand cancer, use that knowledge. Help your child understand the differences between diseases he/she may already be familiar with and this new disease called cancer.

Many parents are concerned that if their young child has had someone in their lives die from cancer,  and they use the word cancer in a current situation, the child will worry that this person will also die. Remember that 2-6 year old children don’t yet have the ability to make logical connections. They will usually take each situation individually, and will react on the basis of what they actually experience, not what they think might happen in the future.