Breaking Devastating News to Children

How to tell kids about a parent's cancer diagnosis.

Try to break the news as honestly as possible–yet in an age-appropriate way.

Herkimer the Horrible

“Do you remember me telling you kids about when I worked in the kitchen at summer camp?” Laura, ten years old and full of curiosity, and Sarah, a freshly-minted eight, nodded their heads, not sure where this conversation would lead. They knew Pedro had been in pain; that he’d been to the hospital.

“Did I ever tell you what we named the giant bread-making machine? The one with the hook bigger than your arm?” More nods.

“What’d you name it? I forgot.” Sarah bit my hook.

“Herkimer. We called that big machine Herkimer.” More tentative nods. How does one break the news to little kids that the rug will be ripped out from underneath their little lives?

“Well, Daddy has something growing in his neck and the doctors said it looks kinda like bread dough. It’s a tumor of some sort. I named it Herkimer the Horrible because it’s big and not very nice.”

“Is it cancer?” Laura wanted to know. Cancer?! She shouldn’t know anything about that word.

“We don’t know yet. The doctors took a chunk of Herkimer out and they’re sending it to a lab where they will do tests on it and figure out what it’s really made up of. We’ll know in a few days what it is for sure.”

“So, we’ve named the beast, and when we find out what he is, we’ll know how to fight him,” Pedro added. His voice shook a little from the force of his bravado.

We’d named the beast—he was something palpable, not just cancer. Ok, so we’re a little weird to name a tumor in Pedro’s neck. Somehow, I hoped it would make a difference. It gave me hope that like bread dough, we could work it, bake it and be done with it.

If only.

“Oh,” Sarah giggled. How could she giggle at a time like this? How could she not? She had helped me make bread countless times. Envisioning a lump of dough in her daddy’s neck did sound a little odd.

“Oh.” I could see tears building in Laura’s eyes. Older, wiser and more aware of what ‘cancer’ and ‘tumor’ might mean in her life, she understood that this was no laughing matter.

We leaned into each other, the four of our family, and tried to sniffle, cry and giggle all alone. Each of us in a different sea, reaching out and clinging to each other for solace—hoping to stay afloat no matter what that dough turned out to be.

Have you ever had to break devastating news to a child?  How old was the child?  What did you tell him or her?

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a 'recovering cancer caregiver' who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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  • Very powerful little story of a moment I can only imagine. You pose a very good question, and i hope some more very good stories are collected here. I know that Rethink Breast Cancer has a good book for parents explaining breast cancer, but that is just one instance in a wide-ranging realm of possibilities. ~Catherine

    • Thanks for mentioning other resources, Catherine! It’s so hard to know how to share bad news, isn’t it? Especially today with social media!

  • I think this is a very important topic to discuss. There are so many other situations that are hard to explain to children too. Our son was only three when my husband deployed but we did the best we could to explain. I think giving them something tangible to relate to is so important. We used a calendar even though I didn’t really know when we would be able to stop crossing out days or if we would have too stop too soon.
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    • What a great idea of using a calendar to help mark time! It would work equally well with cancer–most chemo treatments are scheduled, and it would be a great way to discuss side-effects for the patient (Daddy might be really tired and unable to see any one on these days). It would be an equally good idea to schedule in some ‘good news’ events, too!

  • Sarah Ojeda

    This brought tears to my eyes! I still remember that day….very faintly.

    • I didn’t mean to make you cry, Chickadee!

  • Heavy stuff, Anita. Praise God for healing Pedro!
    Susan Shipe recently posted…the emmaus roadMy Profile

  • Wow, so glad that your Pedro is well and the ya’ll with the help of God beat Herkimer the Horrible. 🙂

  • I cried too, Sarah and Anita, and I’m simply a distant reader, not intimately acquainted with your grief. But thank you for sharing it. A small part of me wonders if I’m to tuck your tender example away incase, one day, we have devastating news to share with our young children.
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