Mother and child
Supporting a loved one,  Family

How do I tell my three-year-old child I have cancer?

Sharing news of a diagnosis with a small child can indeed be challenging. When I was diagnosed, my kids were in early 20s and already understood the gravity of it, but a three-year-old might not grasp it fully.

In simple terms, you could explain to your child that mommy is feeling unwell and needs to go to the doctor quite often. One of the analogies I’ve heard is to equate it to having a “boo-boo” inside your body that doctors are helping to make better. It might help to reassure them that you’ll do your best to feel better and that it’s okay for them to continue playing, laughing, and being their wonderful self.

If your child asks more questions, try explaining in the simplest terms possible, using language they would understand. However, remember that it isn’t easy to grasp for a little one; the most crucial thing is that they feel secure and loved. Your strength and open communication will help create that environment. 

Here are some tips from others who’ve been in a position of parenting small children while undergoing cancer treatment.

First, if help is offered, do not hesitate to accept it. This could be in the form of meals, childcare, or even house cleaning. This would help you preserve your energy for you and your child while keeping up with treatment.

Next, try not to keep your emotions bottled up. It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from worry, but it is also important for a child to understand, to whatever extent possible, what you’re facing. Remember, children are astute and they can sense when something is amiss. Please do reassure them that they cannot “catch” cancer — I had a friend who discovered this was a worry for her small son.

Prioritize self-care because you need to be as well as you can be for your little ones. I know it’s easier said than done, but simple habits like healthy eating, regular exercise and getting enough rest can support you through this period. Lean again on your support circle. You will be fatigued if you are undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation. You will feel slower and you will need your rest to recover and heal. However it is shown that even light exercise can help alleviate side effects, so a slow walk to the playground with the littles is a very good thing.

Lastly, spend time doing quiet activities with your kiddos, like watching a movie or reading a book. These moments create cherished moments in the confines of your energy levels.

Remember, the goal isn’t to be a superparent but rather to maintain as normal of a routine as possible while reassuring your children that it’s okay for them to laugh and play even if Mommy or Daddy is feeling unwell. And no matter what, you’re still their loving parent.

I’m not a parenting expert. So let’s turn to others for their experienced advice. Here are some tips for parents from Dana Farber. My friend Tori also wrote a children’s book inspired by her experience in parenting her young family during her breast cancer treatment.

Did you know that can talk to a child? A little one isn’t asking her questions directly, but AskEllyn can serve as a coach to help you respond to the questions your wee ones might ask.

Ellyn Winters-Robinson is a breast cancer survivor, entrepreneur, author, in-demand speaker, women’s health advocate, professional communicator and a globally recognized health rebel. Ellyn's best-selling book "Flat Please Hold the Shame," is a girlfriend’s companion guide for those on the breast cancer journey. She is also the co-creator of, the world’s first conversational AI companion for those on the breast cancer journey. With Dense Breasts Canada and award-winning photographer Hilary Gauld, Ellyn also co-produced I WANT YOU TO KNOW, a celebrated photo essay showing the diverse faces and stories of 31 individuals on the breast cancer journey. Ellyn’s story and have been featured in People Magazine, Chatelaine Magazine, the Globe and Mail, CTV National News and Your Morning, and Fast Company.

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