Talking to children about cancer can be daunting, but you are not alone. Cancer Council can provide information and support, and can point you in the right direction for specialised assistance. This section explains when to seek professional help for a child and lists many support organisations. It includes a reading list and glossary to help you explain cancer to younger and older children.
Many professionals and organisations can help you communicate with your children throughout your experience with cancer. You don't need to have a specific problem to make contact with these services. You can ask for help even before breaking the news to your children. A health professional could practise the conversations with you so that you feel better prepared.
You can also ask health professionals and organisations for help if you are worried about your children's behaviour. You may choose to see or call the professional yourself, and to use their advice to sort out the problem. Most parents, with the right advice, can support their children through difficult situations. Occasionally, a child may need to attend a consultation, and parents might be asked to come too.
When to seek professional support for your child
While it's difficult to know if your child's reaction is typical or something more serious, sometimes extra support can help. Some warning signs that you should see a professional are if your child:
- has a change in their usual behaviour (e.g. aggressive or regressive behaviour) that is ongoing
- is showing less mature ways of coping, such as wetting the bed every night for a month
- refuses to go to school – they may say they are too sick for school, but actually have separation anxiety and think they need to stay home to look after their parent
- has a persistent change in eating habits
- has noticeable concentration challenges (dropping grades)
- is spending more time online
- talks about wanting to die or is extremely preoccupied with dying
- is having trouble sleeping
- acts sad and withdrawn
- demonstrates severe behaviour, such as self-harm
- has increased risk-taking behaviours, such as alcohol or drug use
- is withdrawing from friends.
Teachers and other school staff can be among the first people to notice that something is worrying a young person. Because they see children every weekday for many weeks in a row, they may see a change in behaviour, concentration levels, grades, eating habits and socialising with peers. This is one of the reasons it is valuable to let the school know what is going on at home and to ask them to contact you if they have any concerns about how your child is coping.
Health professionals who can help
Professionals to see if you are concerned about your child include:
Your GP and specialists – may be able to talk to your children, or help you decide whether to consult a psychologist.
Nurses – may be the most regular contact you have with the treatment centre and are a source of information and support.
Social workers – link you to support services and help with emotional, practical or financial issues.
Psychologists and counsellors – can help you with communication and behavioural issues (visit Australian Psychological Society and scroll down to "Find a Psychologist").
School counsellors – are trained in child development and can be a useful source of support and ideas.
Psychiatrists – will see children with more serious issues (you will need a referral from a GP if your child is treated privately).
Practical and financial help
A cancer diagnosis can affect every aspect of your life, and it often creates practical and financial issues.
There are many sources of support and information to help you, your family and carers navigate all stages of the cancer experience, including:
- information about cancer and its treatment
- access to benefits and programs to ease the financial impact of cancer treatment, such as help with the cost of prescription medicines, transport costs, utility bills or basic legal advice
- home care services, such as Meals on Wheels, visiting nurses and home help
- aids and appliances to make life easier at home
- support groups and programs
- counselling services.
The availability of services may vary depending on where you live, and some services will be free but others might have a cost. To find good sources of support and information, you can talk to the social worker or nurse at your hospital or treatment centre, get in touch with Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see Cancer and Your Finances and Cancer, Work & You.
If you feel overwhelmed
A child's ability to cope is often closely linked to how their parents are coping. Kids often copy their parents' behaviour, so if Mum or Dad is depressed and anxious, they are more likely to be too. It is important to seek support if you feel overwhelmed.
- Ask family and friends for help. Let them know what you need – they will probably be relieved that you can give them something to do.
- Get practical assistance and information from Cancer Council and other organisations to help ease your worries (see details below).
- Use complementary therapies, such as massage, hypnotherapy or relaxation techniques to manage stress.
- Contact CanTeen, Camp Quality or Redkite about programs that may help you and your children cope with cancer. Lifeline and Kids Helpline both provide 24-hour telephone counselling. See a list of support services.
Support from Cancer Council
Cancer Council offers a range of services to support people affected by cancer, their families and friends. Services may vary depending on where you live.
Cancer Council 13 11 20
Trained professionals will answer any questions you have about the situation in your family and link you to services in your area. A translator service is available for languages other than English. Call 13 14 50.
Cancer Council produces information on over 25 types of cancer, as well as treatments, emotional and practical issues, and recovery. You can also listen to Cancer Council's audio podcast series, The Thing About Cancer.
Your local Cancer Council can help you find services or offer guidance to manage the practical impact of a cancer diagnosis. This may include transport to treatment, affordable accommodation near treatment centres, and help with household tasks from trained volunteers. Call 13 11 20 to find out what services are available in your state or territory.
Legal and financial support
If you need advice on legal, financial, small business or workplace issues, we can refer you to qualified professionals. These services are free for people who can't afford to pay. Financial assistance may also be available. The Cancer Council team will ask several questions to determine whether you are eligible for assistance. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to ask if you are eligible. If you don't qualify for free assistance, we can put you in touch with a professional who can help on a paid basis.
Peer support services
You might find it helpful to share your thoughts and experiences with other people affected by cancer. Cancer Council can link you with individuals or support groups, by phone, in person or online. Call 13 11 20 or visit cancercouncil.com.au/OC.
You might also find the following free Cancer Council resources useful:
* May not be available in all states and territories.
"My family members don't really understand what it's like to have cancer thrown at you, but in my support group, I don't feel like I have to explain." - Sam
- Camp Quality: provides programs and services to strengthen the wellbeing of children aged 0–13 growing up with cancer: 1300 662 267
- Cancer Council: provides a wide range of support and information services for people affected by cancer (see below for more details): 13 11 20
- CanTeen: supports young people aged 12–25 affected by their own or a close family member's cancer diagnosis: 1800 835 932
- headspace: run by the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, provides mental health services to people aged 12–25: 1800 650 890
- Kids Helpline: offers 24-hour telephone and online counselling for young people aged 5–25: 1800 55 1800
- Lifeline: offers 24-hour general crisis support: 13 11 14
- ReachOut: general information about mental health and wellbeing for young people going through tough times
- Redkite: offers financial, emotional and educational support for people aged 0–24 with cancer, as well as their families and networks: 1800 REDKITE (1800 733 548)
- Ronald McDonald Learning Program: provides assessment, therapy and tuition for young people whose education has been disrupted by serious illness: 1300 307 642
- Young Carers Network: provides information and support for people under 25 who care for someone with an illness, disability or mental health issue
- youthbeyondblue: supports young people aged 12–25 dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems: 1300 22 4636
- Griefline: offers phone and online counselling: 1800 642 066
Online cancer information
Online information for children aged 3–13 years
- Bearing Up Club: internet club for kids dealing with bereavement – once a child is registered, they can join an online chat room
- Kids' Guide to Cancer: Camp Quality's free educational app for children aged 8–13 who have a parent, sibling or other loved one with cancer – answers the common questions kids have about cancer.
Online information for teenagers aged 12–18 years
- CanTeen aimed at young people aged 12–25 who are dealing with their own or a close family member's cancer diagnosis; peer community and discussions as well as access to counselling.
- riprap UK site for teenagers who have a parent with cancer.
- Stupid Cancer US site for people aged 15–39 who are affected by cancer.
General online information
- Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings, Ellen McVicker & Nanci Hersh, S.N., 2006
- Nowhere Hair, Sue Glader & Edith Buenen, Thousand Words Press, 2010
- In the Rainbow, Tracey Newnham, 2017
- Safina and the Hat Tree, Cynthia Hartman & Hayley O'Brien, Nomota, 2004
For younger readers
- Because...Someone I Love Has Cancer. Kids' Activity Book, Terri Ades, American Cancer Society, 2006
- I'm a Kid Living with Cancer, Jenevieve Fisher & Casey Huie, Isaiah 11:6 Publishing, 2010
- Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between, Bryan Mellonie & Robert Ingpen, Penguin, 2005
- I Miss You: A first look at death, Pat Thomas, Barron's Educational Series, 2001
- Big Tree is Sick, Nathalie Slosse & Rocio Del Moral, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017
- The Memory Tree, Britta Teckentrup, Hachette, 2014
- I Know Someone with Cancer series, 2018: bupa.co.uk/bupa-cancer-promise/i-know-someone-with-cancer
- Allie McGregor's True Colours, Sue Lawson, Black Dog Books, 2006
- My Mum's Got Cancer, Dr Lucy Blunt, Jane Curry Publishing, 2012
- The Honest Truth, Dan Gemeinhart, Scholastic Press, 2015
- The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, Penguin Books, 2014
- My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks, Maya Silva & Marc Silva, Sourcebooks, 2013
- Cancer in Our Family: Helping children cope with a parent's illness (2nd ed.) Sue P. Heiney & Joan F. Hermann American Cancer Society, 2013
- Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent Is Sick, Paula K. Rauch & Anna C. Muriel, McGraw-Hill Education, 2006
Expert content reviewers:
Professor Kate White, Chair of Nursing, The University of Sydney, NSW; Sarah Ellis, Psychologist, Behavioural Sciences Unit, Kids with Cancer Foundation, Sydney Children's Hospital, NSW; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Chandra Franken, Program Manager - NSW & ACT, Starlight Children's Foundation, NSW; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen, NSW; Keely Gordon-King, Cancer Counselling Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Stephanie Konings, Research Officer, CanTeen, NSW; Sally and Rosie Morgan, Consumers; Dr Pandora Patterson, General Manager, Research and Youth Cancer Services, Canteen, and Adjunct Associate Professor, Cancer Nursing Research Unit, The University of Sydney, NSW and Visiting Professor, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University, UK; Suzanne Rumi, Consumer; Michael Sieders, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality.