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Q. How do I tell my 5-year-old child that my mother-in-law has breast cancer?


I am sorry to hear of your mother-in-law’s diagnosis. Many adults struggle with how to tell children about a family member’s cancer in an age-appropriate way, and it is normal to have some anxiety about the conversation. First, it is important to consider your own feelings and how they may impact the conversation you have with your child; try to find a time to talk when you and your child are feeling calm and the environment is quiet. It can be beneficial to use the word “cancer” when informing your child, as young children may hear “grandma is sick” and have trouble differentiating grandma’s experience from a time when the child was “sick”. Be sure to reassure your child that no one did anything to cause grandma’s cancer; sometimes children may feel the cancer is a result of the child misbehaving. It is also helpful for the child to hear that cancer is not something they can “catch” like a common cold. Provide some basic information about what the treatment plan will involve and reassure that grandma has support (for example, “Grandma is going to take some very strong medicine (chemotherapy) for her cancer. The strong medicine may make her hair fall out for a little while, so you may see Grandma wearing hats. The doctors are working hard to help Grandma.”).

Keep in mind that young children can have short attention spans and allow them the time they need to process the information; they may run off to play right after you tell them, and then ask questions at another time. Some children may be sad and ask questions right away. Be sure to let your child know that it is okay to have the feelings they have about Grandma’s cancer and that they can always talk to you or ask questions. You may want to acknowledge that the adults in the family are also having feelings, to further normalize them for your child (for example, “Mommy sometimes feels sad about Grandma’s cancer. If you’re feeling sad we can talk about it together.”).

Overall, remember it is okay to not have all the answers. This likely will not be a one-time conversation but an ongoing discussion throughout your mother-in-law’s illness. The oncology social workers on the CancerCare Hopeline (800-813-4673) are here to help if you need some additional support around this discussion.

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