Talking to your kids about cancer

A: Cancer is an extremely challenging topic. And children have a limited ability to understand concepts like this. 

To help them understand, you will have to say repeated, short messages in very concrete and specific ways. It is important to tell them the truth. This can be very difficult for you personally because of the likely upcoming loss of a parent.

A basic message can be along the lines of, “Grandpa’s body works to have just the right number of cells, of the right type, in the right location at all times.  

“For reasons that we do not understand, a small group of cells from some part of his body in this case Grandpa’s pancreas started to grow without limit and spread to other parts of the body where they do not belong. 

“These cells will crowd out other important cells and block the body from doing the important things it needs to do. Because of these cells being where they don’t belong, at some point his body will no longer be able to continue function and he will die from this disease.”

“For many types of cancer there are treatments surgery, radiation treatments and drugs that can help to slow, or even cure, cancer. 

“The treatments can be really hard on the body, though, and will often times be the cause of more serious illness. 

“Sometimes even the best treatments with the best doctors and hospitals do not work. In Grandpa’s case, the cancer in his body will eventually cause him to die.” 

As difficult as this is for you to tell them, they will ultimately appreciate hearing this message from you, their parent. 

Best of luck to you.

This column is intended to provide general information only and not medical advice. Contact your health care provider with questions about your child. Dr. Peter Dehnel is a board-certified pediatrician and medical director with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. Send questions to