cancer, how to explain cancer

How To Explain Your Child’s Cancer To Classmates And Friends

After the cancer diagnosis has set in, families sometimes ask themselves, “How are we going to tell our child’s classmates and friends?”

This question isn’t necessarily asked right away. During those first few days, they’re thinking about themselves, their child, and their family. When they’re ready to take in some of the other pieces and components, then they may start to think about it.

Here are 3 questions to ask when figuring out how to explain your child’s cancer diagnosis to classmates and friends.

1. Who Do I Involve In The Discussion?

Here at Children’s, we have a team of child life specialists, like me, who are available to come out to the school for our patients who live within 50 miles of the hospital.

As a child life specialist, I am here to provide information at the classmates’ developmental level. It allows parents to be parents—and not educators—if they do not want to do this.

It can be emotional for a parent to stand before their child’s class and do this. So, child life specialists can provide this service.

Depending on where she is in her treatment, your child might come along to the school visit to hear, see, and be a part of the discussion.


We would never go to a school without a child or teen agreeing to it. Sometimes, he might say, “Gosh, go ahead and do it, Christy, but I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to be in the room while you are talking to the kids because that makes me uncomfortable.”

Although he may not be there at that moment or that day, he knows it’s important for his peers to have the right information, and for them to be informed and supportive of him.

2. Who Do I Talk To?

Your hospital’s child life specialist can come out and talk to your child’s classmates, a small group of friends, or even the whole school. The decision is entirely up to the family.

We had a teen patient who was a competitive dancer. She had a child life specialist talk with her dance academy group because those were the people she wanted as her supporters and cheerleaders. It was important for her to have them understand what she was going through.

I once set up a meeting between a teen patient, his high school counselor, and his three best friends. He basically wanted them to know, “You guys are going to be my people and help the others understand. This is pretty personal, but I want you guys to be onboard.”

3. What Do I Talk About?

There’s a lot of information to pack into what is usually a 30-minute discussion.

First, I like to ask the classmates, “What do you guys know already? What have you heard?”

It’s likely been a few weeks or sometimes even a few months before I go to the school and talk to the kids.

So, they might have been told something, but perhaps it wasn’t accurate. Or maybe it wasn’t enough information for them to fully understand. Or perhaps it caused a discussion about things that weren’t true, and so we talk about myths and misconceptions.


The Diagnosis

Usually, they’ll raise their hands and say, “Well, we know it’s cancer.” And I’ll say, “Yes, it’s something called cancer.”

I like to wait for them to say some of the words and hear their language. They might say something that is a misconception, and I’ll take that opportunity to do some education and turn that misconception around.

Treatment And Side Effects

Sometimes, it helps to have younger children look at a doll with some medical devices on it—like a central line tube—that can show how they’re getting their medicines.


I talk about how they get the medicine and what it does—how it helps them get better and destroys the cancer that doesn’t belong. Then, I talk about some of the potential side effects, because these are what friends might see:

  • Losing her hair because of chemotherapy
  • Developing puffy cheeks from steroids
  • Having pale skin from anemia

It’s important to assure friends and classmates that these side effects are a result of certain medications, but they don’t last forever. I might talk about how long that might be in months or years, how to support their friend with these changes, and respect and know that friend is still the same person inside.


Sometimes, depending on the age group, I let them imagine what it might be like if they were in their friend’s shoes. I let them take a moment to verbalize how that would be.

They will talk about things like, “I’d be really scared of losing my hair, or I’d be scared of all the pokes, or I’d be scared of anesthesia.”

If the friends start saying some of those things, sometimes it helps them respect and appreciate what’s going on with their friend who’s sick. It can also help the child going through the treatment see that peers understand and share in those fears, too.

Life After Treatment

I might talk about accommodations that need to be made when the friend is coming back to school. For example, she can’t run as fast at recess or she might not be able to stay in the sun as long. She might need to have a water bottle at her desk.

Everyone else may not get to do that, but I explain that this is important for their friend, and why it’s important.

Childhood cancer patients’ friends and classmates need to have the right information, so that they can support them.

If you’ve been through this already, how did you explain your child’s cancer to her friends? Feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments.

Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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