Talking to Kids About Cancer

Cancer is a scary subject for anyone. But for a parent with cancer, how do you explain it to your child? Sue Glader faced that dilemma when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her son was just one year old. In her beautifully illustrated book, Nowhere Hair, Sue approaches the topic from a child’s point of view. Here, she answers some of our questions about her experience.

What advice would you give parents who are trying to talk to their kids about cancer/illness?

In a country with swine flu mania and hand washing ad campaigns, it’s important to explain that cancer is not a germ that you can catch. Love and hugs and kisses are welcome more than ever. And the other big concept to impart is that a child did not cause his or her parent’s cancer. Refusing to eat vegetables did not cause it. Nor fighting with siblings. Basically, mom or dad’s cancer is not their fault.

Then remember to offer information in small bites. How you present this information to them, and by that I mean how you are appearing and acting as well as what and how much you say, will help lay the foundation for how your kids cope.

How did going through chemotherapy and cancer change your perspective on motherhood?

Cancer and motherhood is a combination that cracks your heart. I had this child that needed me so very desperately. Just like every child needs their mother. The thought that I possibly would not be able to play that role…even now I can barely think about it. I realized that I wanted to be a mother, and focus on him and the things that were important to him. Chemotherapy, and being a bald mother, allowed me to see first hand that children, bless them, are really just curious about everything.

When during your experience with cancer were you inspired to write the book?

When I was all done with the appointments and the treatment and my hair started to grow back in — basically when I felt I was returning back to myself — I was overcome with a need to Do Something to process what just had happened. I am a writer by trade, and the materials I saw to explain cancer to kids were, ahem, scary. Fear does not deserve a place at the table with children. So I was inspired to offer up a story that explained things in as upbeat yet honest a way as possible.

What is the hardest part about going through chemo and cancer?

Not knowing why it came, what you did or did not do to cause it, and whether it will come back.

What can loved ones do or say to help?

The best gift you can give someone who is in the weeds with a cancer diagnosis and young children (even more so than my book) is your ability to just listen. Sometimes there are no words. Just be there. All the way there.

How has your perspective on health changed since your diagnosis?

You hear it often: If you have your health, you have everything. It’s no lie, people. When you can wake each morning without the cloud of illness hanging over your head, that is a gift. So I take care of myself. I eat organic foods, exercise, and try to stay as even-keel as possible as far as stress is concerned. I’ve thrown out stuff with parabens and I read labels like nobody’s business.

What advice would you give to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer?

You will do this, but attempt to not spend a lot of precious time going down the roads that your mind will attempt to drive down constantly. You have NO IDEA where the cancer journey will lead you, and this is both medically speaking and spiritually speaking. Stay in the moment as much as possible. And plan a really wonderful vacation for when the whole treatment phase is over.

10 Breast Cancer Myths
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Tara C.
Tara C.6 years ago

Thank you so much Elissie! It's always nice to see somebody who says no to chemo and radiation. Orthodox cancer treatments are just wrong. Sometimes a little bit helps, but it's usually good to stay away from them.

Past Member
Past Member 7 years ago

Informative article. Today we can see the many cases of the cancer especially in children. Near about 17000 people in the United States are diagnosed with the primary cancer each year and nearly 13000 die of the disease. The annual incidence of the primary brain cancer in the children is about 3 per 100000. The most common symptoms of brain cancer are nausea, vomiting and the headaches. In children you can see these symptoms: weakness, paleness, dizziness, back, leg and joint pain, headache, trouble standing or walking.

Elissie Wallace
Elizabeth Tabak7 years ago

I was diagnosed with cervical cancer while pregnant with my firstborn, it has always been a part of their lives. Perhaps not in the typical rounds of chemo or radiation, as I chose a holistic route to treat my cancer. But in how I chose to live my life. Regardless of how much time I had left, I wanted to leave my kids with a better world than I knew as well as memories of a mom who cherished them. This outlook became a joyful celebration of life, the everyday and mundane as well as the special milestones. As the years passed I realized that had it not been for the cancer, this life, a brilliant, amazing, happy life, would have been lived very differently. Probably wastefully. Not appreciatively. Definitely taking too much for granted.

For me, cancer was a gift that helped me raise two precious children, adore my husband and make wiser choices with my time and resources.

karin m.
Karin M7 years ago


Merelen Knitter
Merelen Knitter7 years ago

I'm glad the author could turn her experience into something so positive and helpful.

Tori W.
Past Member 7 years ago

Great ideas. It would be extremely difficult to talk to a child about cancer. I have had to talk with adult children about cancer and that wasn't easy either, so younger children would be more difficult certainly.

Tamila mendoza
Tamila mendoza7 years ago

Thanks for the tips. I am going for my second round in fighting cancer. The 1st time my boy was 6. The hair fallout was devastating to him. He is now 9 and I pray it wont be as tramatic as the 1st time for him. I truly believe that the trama he felt the 1st time was a direct reflection of the fear I felt. This time I am just going to have the whole situation eliminated... both breasts. I want to be here to see my bouy become a man....

Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS7 years ago

Re the following sentence from the article: "The best gift you can give someone who is in the weeds with a cancer diagnosis and young children (even more so than my book) is your ability to just listen."

This is just plain, good advice for dealing with anyone going through a serious illness. There is nothing so frustrating and down-heartening as to be offered the same piece of obvious, cheery/cheer-up advice by the umpteenth friend, when all you really want is someone to listen and to validate that your feelings and concerns are serious and real and not to be taken lightly.

Reka B.
reka b7 years ago


Nicole Nuss
Nicole Nuss7 years ago

What an amazing post!

Sue, thank you so much for sharing your story, which will undoubtedly help many others going through similar challenges.

All the best to you!