Talking with Young Children About Cancer

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Conversation Starters: Preschool-Upper Elementary

  • About cancer: “I have an illness called cancer. The doctor is giving me medicine to help me get better. The medicine might make me feel sick or tired some days, but I might feel fine on other days.”

  • To address misunderstandings: “Sometimes girls and boys worry that they thought or did something to cause cancer. No-one can make people get cancer, and we can’t wish it away either.”

“How do you think Daddy got cancer?”

  • To explain changes and reassure them: “Mummy needs to go to the hospital every day for a few weeks, so Daddy will be taking you to preschool/school instead. He’s looking forward to doing that.”

“Daddy is sick so we won’t see him for a while, but he loves you very much.”

“I love your pictures, so maybe you can draw me some to take to hospital.”

Conversation Starters; younger school-age children, 6–9:

  • About cancer: “I have an illness called cancer. It means some lumps are growing inside my body that shouldn’t be there, and they’re making me sick. I am going to have an operation in hospital to have the lumps taken out. Then I’ll have some more medicine to make sure they don’t grow back.”

“The doctors say that Dad has a problem with his blood. That’s why he’s been very tired lately. The illness is called… Dad’s going to have treatment to make him well again.”

“Lots of people get cancer. We don’t know why it happens. Most people get better and we expect I will get better too.”

  • To address misunderstandings: “We can still have lots of kisses and cuddles – you cannot catch cancer from me or from anyone.”

“Cancer is a disease of the body that can be in different places for different people.”

“Even though your school friends say that cancer is really bad and I will get very sick, they don’t know everything about this cancer. I will tell you what I know about my cancer.”

  • To explain changes and reassure them: “The doctors will take good care of me. I will have treatment soon, which I’ll tell you about when it starts.”

“Even though things might change a bit at home, you’ll still be able to go to tennis lessons while Dad is having treatment.”

“Mum is going to be busy helping Grandma after she comes out of hospital. There’s ways we can all help out, but mostly things won’t change for you.”

“You don’t have to tell your friends about me having cancer if you don’t want to, but I would like to let your teachers know so they understand what’s happening at home.”

Other Resources

Strategies to Engage Children in Conversation

Sentence stems and manipulates provide the language, structure and tools children need to engage in conversation and identify feelings. 

Sentence Stems:

Craft Sticks:

Puppet Sentence-Completion: Using puppets can make conversations more accessible for preschool aged. They also help children understand what his happening and what is expected. 



Because Someone I Love Has Cancer

by American Cancer Society. 

This activity book explains the many changes that occur in families following a cancer diagnosis occurs. After each topic, there is space for kids to draw the way they view things. It also offers strategies to discover inner strength and self-esteem.


Big Tree is Sick

by Nathalie Slosee & Rocio Del Mora.

When Big Tree unexpectedly falls ill with woodworm, Snibbles is very upset and angry. This story describes the anger and emotions that many children feel when a loved one is diagnosed with a long-term illness. 



Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings

by Ellen McVicker.

The story, as told through the eyes of a child, lends itself to a simple and clear understanding of cancer. It also teaches children to realize the power they have the power within themselves to be an active and integral part of a loved one's cancer journey.


Cancer Hates Kisses

by Jessica Reid Sliwerski

Mothers are superheroes when they're battling cancer!  This empowering picture book provides an honest yet spirited way to explain the cancer treatment to children.



Coping Plan

Children need a clearly established plan and strategies to help them get through a stressful experience. A coping plan enables a child to identify their resources of support and understand different ways to manage frustrations and feelings of sadness. 

Coping Plan Ideas:

Worry Stones: