Emotional Care

Helping children understand a cancer diagnosis in the family

February 7, 2024 Word for Word Media 0Comment

Dr Memory Munodawafa, a clinical and oncology social worker, offers valuable insights on how to approach the challenging task of helping children understand a cancer diagnosis within the family.

You can listen to this article below, or by using your favourite podcast player at pod.link/oncologybuddies

Plan ahead

First and foremost, it’s crucial to plan the conversation carefully. Choose a time when you’re feeling calm and composed, minimising the chances of breaking down during the discussion. Find a quiet and comfortable setting where you and your child can talk without interruptions. It’s advisable to inform them that you need to discuss something significant without frightening them and offer them the opportunity to suggest a suitable time for the conversation.

If you have more than one child, consider having the initial discussion with all of them together. Later, schedule one-on-one time with each child, as they often rely on siblings for support and comfort. If possible, involve both parents in the first conversation. If this isn’t feasible, enlist the support of another close family member or friend. It’s essential to be on the same page with your partner or spouse and agree on what you’ll say during the conversation.

Be real

Honesty is key. Don’t shy away from using terms like cancer or tumour. Encourage your children to ask questions, and don’t hesitate to admit when you don’t know the answer. Emotions, including sadness, fear, anxiety, and anger, are part of the journey. Let your child know that these feelings are entirely normal and acceptable.

Encourage them to revisit you anytime they wish to discuss their emotions and worries. Help them understand that people they trust, such as teachers and friends, may react differently to the news, as not everyone knows how to respond to a cancer diagnosis.

Provide age-appropriate information

Tailor the information to your child’s age and level of understanding. Keep the language simple, especially for younger children. Ensure they understand the basics of the illness, such as the type of cancer, the affected body part, and the treatment plan.

Children also need to know how the diagnosis will impact their daily lives. Address questions like who will care for them in the absence of the ill parent and whether the parent will still be able to participate in their daily activities. The depth of information should align with your child’s age and emotional maturity.

Deal with common fears

Children often grapple with fears related to their parent’s illness. Younger children may engage in magical thinking, believing they caused the illness through their actions. Guilt can be a prevailing emotion; adolescents may feel remorseful about past misbehaviour, while younger children may feel guilty about negative thoughts they had when angry. Some children might erroneously believe that cancer is contagious or worry about abandonment. It’s crucial to address these fears and reassure your child that advancements in treatment have improved the chances of recovery.

Ways to help your child cope


Consulting an oncology social worker at the time of diagnosis can provide invaluable guidance on managing your family’s emotional journey. Encourage your children to express their emotions, both negative and positive, in a healthy way. Humour and fun should still be part of their lives, letting them know it’s okay to laugh and joke even during challenging times.

Regularly check in with your children to gauge how they are coping and prepare them for visits with the sick parent or family member. Seek external support from professionals like art therapists or play therapists if necessary.


Children thrive on structure, so try to maintain a consistent schedule or routine as a family as much as possible. Lean on family and friends for support, whether it’s arranging lift clubs, playdates, outings with grandparents, or pre-cooked meals. Encourage your children to engage in extracurricular activities that provide a healthy outlet for their emotions, such as anger. Involving them in household chores and caregiving for the sick parent can help them feel useful and valued.

In the end, you know your children best. Trust your instincts, be there for them, and maintain open and honest communication. It’s through this two-way conversation that you can provide the guidance and support your children need during this challenging time.

Dr Memory Munodawafa

MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Memory Munodawafa

Dr Memory Munodawafa holds a Doctorate in Psychiatry. She is a clinical and oncology social worker and currently works at UCT as a lecturer for the Social Work and Social Development Department. She also runs a private practice and consults with families and individuals who need mental health and oncology related psycho-social support.

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This article is sponsored by Life Healthcare in the interest of education, awareness and support. The content and opinions expressed are entirely the healthcare professional’s own work and not influenced by Life Healthcare in any way.

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